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Food is more than nutrition - a public health scientist's thoughts on food and health

Food is more than nutrition! As a public health scientist, I (Helena) find food interesting from many different perspectives. I don't usually write about things that are this close to my job, but I've decided to make an exception.


Why am I writing about this?

I'm not "just" a travel blogger, but I also work as a public health scientists in the area of eating habits and physical activity. When it comes to food and health, I have a long background. I am originally a leg. occupational therapist and already at that time I worked with food and health, in the form of work with anorexia and bulimia patients. Then I studied a master's degree in public health sciences, specialising in community nutrition and physical activity.

After that, I did my PhD on an intervention to promote food and exercise-related health among people with intellectual disabilities. In total, there have been 9 years of university and doctoral studies at Karolinska Institutet on food and health.

I have not only studied but also worked with food and health for many years, mainly at Karolinska Institutet and in Region Stockholm, at the former Centre for Public Health (Hälsomålet), the Centre for Epidemiology and Community Medicine and the Academic Primary Care Centre (where I am now). I have mainly worked with method development, evaluation and research.

My defence at Karolinska Institutet in 2014.

Food is more than nutrition

For me, who works with food and health on a daily basis, it is obvious that food is more than nutrition. We eat not only to provide nutrients to the body, but because it is good and enjoyable, and because it is a way to socialise. We eat when we celebrate something special and we eat to mark special traditions. We eat when we are happy, but also when we are sad or want to comfort ourselves. Sometimes we eat simply because it is expected of us on a special occasion.

Food is a big part of our culture, and something much bigger than just nutrients. Take such a thing as food memories! Do you remember a dish from your childhood that you associate with something positive and nice? On the other hand, can you recall a dish that you associate with something difficult in your childhood? Or, do you have a special food memory from a trip?

Food is a big part of our lives, and that's why I want to say that food is more than nutrition. When I work with food and health as a public health scientist, this is an extremely important part. When you think about 'good food for health', nutrients and caloric intake are a big and important part, but it always has to be put in context."

We are all different and have different conditions

It is important to remember that we are all different and have different conditions. Genetically, some people find it easy to gain weight, while others find it difficult to gain weight. We have different experiences, different knowledge and different habits from childhood. Of course, we also have different economies.

It's easy to say that it's too expensive to buy good food if you're on a tight budget. This is partly true, of course, but I don't think it's always that simple. Many healthy foods (like carrots, chicken and herring) are cheap, while ordering a pizza or buying ice cream is quite expensive. MenHowever, there are also other factors that influence the economic and social situation.

If you're a single parent, it can be harder to find the time to cook well, if you work night shifts it can be a challenge to organise family meals, and if you haven't learnt the language yet it can be tricky to read the labels on products in the supermarket. There are many, many factors that affect our conditions.


Food is associated with strong emotions and opinions

One thing I have learnt in all my years of working with food and health is that food is associated with strong emotions and opinions. Everyone has a relationship with food and therefore everyone has opinions and thoughts. One thing that has sometimes surprised me is that those of us who have worked with food and health professionally are often less strict and less "rock solid" than those who write health blogs and invent new diets.

We read research while trying to stay humble about people's different preferences and circumstances, and many of us have a relatively relaxed attitude towards food ourselves. However, we have learnt that food is associated with strong emotions and opinions. I even have colleagues who have received death threats. And yes, this heated atmosphere, especially in previous years, has contributed to the fact that for a long time I did not want to write about health and food here on the blog.

Eat everything! Better almost right than exactly wrong

Many years ago, a former colleague of mine wrote a book entitled 'Eat everything! Better almost right than exactly wrong". We were working with anorexics at the time, and her book was perhaps primarily aimed at that target group. But I still think the title is fantastic. It doesn't have to be perfect. It's better to eat almost right than exactly wrong.

Däck husbåt

Do you like reading about food and health? The plan is to continue this theme on Wednesdays for a while, so don't miss it!

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