Diet therapy

Use nutrition knowledge to empower you to a healthier life

It has been said that we are drowning in information but starved of knowledge 1

This is certainly the case with nutrition. Pick up any newspaper or magazine or turn on the television and you’re sure to find an article or program on nutrition or cooking, with food recommendations from celebrity chefs or well- known media personalities.

While it’s great to be open to new foods, products and cooking styles, how are you to know if this information being promoted is right for you, or is appropriate to your age, health and nutritional needs right now?

Where do we get our nutrition information from? 

Dietitians, Nutritionist, Doctors and Nurses

are considered by people as the most reliable source of nutrition information in many studies, however the most popular sources, over the last ten years, are still the internet, TV, social media and magazines.2,3

The home environment

provides a steady stream of advice from well- meaning family and friends.

The sporting environment

for athletes, can be a major source of nutrition information from other athletes, sporting institutes, online supplement companies, beverage sponsors, as well as sports dietitians and coaches.


we also pick up nutrition information from food packaging, food brochures and supermarket promotions, advertising, sponsorship deals in schools and sports clubs, messages on billboards, signage on bus shelters etc.

Unfortunately, in many cases this information is more about selling us ultra-processed food products and beverages. Many of these products are high in salt, saturated fat and sugar but lack the dietary fibre and the essential nutrients found in whole foods that could give us better health and personal power.

How do we learn?

Having information available to us doesn’t necessarily mean we will receive it and convert this into knowledge, let alone action.

Knowing how we prefer to learn can help us to develop study skills and may, for some people, make the learning experience more enjoyable.

The VARK questionnaire

This was developed by Neil Fleming in 2012 and describes 4 sensory ways that people might use to learn new things.4
Here I give some examples to illustrate how athletes (using these different learning preferences) might like to learn about nutrition and to get you thinking about your own preferred way of learning.***

V = VISUAL:  learners might like to see different formats, spaces, graphs, charts, diagrams and plans.
E.g.athletes might be interested in monitoring their hydration during training or competition or better understand the relevance of information on food labels to their energy and carbohydrate  intake.

A = AURAL (Verbal): learners like to chat, they might enjoy listening to guest speakers and taking part in discussion groups.
E.g. athletes might enjoy discussing with a senior athlete (role model), coach or sports dietitian their meal and hydration plans for competitions prior to a main event or tour overseas.

R = READ- WRITE: these people like to make lists, notes and text whether in print or online.
E.g. Athletes might be happy learning about energy or the nutrients important for performance using handouts, fact sheets and workbooks.

K =KINESTHETIC: These people may learn through the use of their senses, practical exercises, trial and error.
E.g. Athletes might enjoy a team cooking class or supermarket tour etc.

Fleming makes it clear that we don’t have a single preference with VARK ie these categories are blurred at the edges and we will often use all four modalities depending on what we are trying to learn.  For instance, pictures are visual, but they can also move such as in a video so are therefore kinesthetic as well.5

The VARK learning modalities have also been extended by other researchers such as Howard Gardner 6 who in 2013 described three additional categories:

LOGICAL = a mathematical preference may apply to people who like to see patterns and classifications…so they might like to involve computers, apps and gadgets in their learning
E.g. an athlete might like to use a pedometer or GPS to measure/track distance travelled in order to calculate their energy expenditure.

SOCIAL = Interpersonal preference, applies to people who are sensitive to values and the feelings of others and so pick up on issues that help the well-being of others.
E.g. athletes might like team building exercises coaching young kids in sport or hosting a barbeque for them.

SOLITARY = Intrapersonal preference, applies to those who learn best by themselves without the distraction of others.
E.g. these athletes may learn well by keeping diaries of the food and fluid intake, recording their sweat losses verses their performance ratings to discuss one on one with their own sports dietitian.

While Gardener has deepened and broadened our understanding of learning preferences and intelligence, like Fleming, he stresses the overlap of them all. Also, the importance of providing students with an array of different learning opportunities appropriate to the subject matter, their age and level of understanding.6

Moving information to knowledge

 While there is no shortage of nutrition information available to us today, having the knowledge to apply this can be a real challenge.

For instance, athletes might know food sources of calcium, protein, carbohydrate, fat, iron etc, they may also know how much fluid they generally need, but more importantly they need to know how much more of these things they need when training and during competition, especially during extremes of temperature or topography.7

For people wanting to control weight or those with health concerns or just those wanting to keep well for as long as possible in the body they are lucky to live in, then it may not be enough for them to just say that “I eat healthy food”.

Adequate nutrition knowledge requires us to know how much we need each day and importantly how to regulate that intake in order to:

  • consume sufficient energy and nutrients to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.
    NB Even if you are trying to lose weight your still need to eat well in order to maintain your metabolic rate, body repair and cellular functions e.g immune system.
  • to maintain mental well-being by eating enough of the nutrients that feed and maintain brain function.
  • to understand the nutrients, we may need more of when gearing up our activity levels, in order to meet our performance goals and recover well so we can go out tomorrow and do it all over again.
  • to stay active and strong as we get older.

Our behaviour and the barriers to learning

The beliefs and attitudes that we have about food and nutrition can get in the way of our need to learn more about what our body needs and to eat well. These barriers can certainly affect the food choices that we make now as well as (ultimately) our long-term health.7

  • Hunger and food cravings

The taste, smell and appearance of foods can stimulate appetite and increase food intake.7 (Being nutritionally aware shouldn’t dent our enjoyment of food).

However it can help if we learn about satiety and which foods control blood sugar and hunger the best. This is as much an environmental issue as a health one these days if we want to reduce our food bills and “carbon footprint”

The time available to shop, prepare and cook fresh food can be limited when trying to juggle family, work and training responsibilities which can see us reaching for convenience foods and takeaways. This can lead to shortfalls in the nutritional value of the food we pay good money to consume.

The state of our health can also affect how much and the types of foods that we choose to eat. These foods may not always be sufficient to meet our increased needs for recovery from an illness.

Equally it can be hard for very active people to judge how to “dial down” their intake of foods (without loss of nutrition) if they are injured or between seasons and not expending as much energy as they would if taking part in regular training or competition.

  • Food availability

The influence of parents eating habits, religion, tradition and culture can impact on our food choices as we grow up.7

Issues of poor food security, housing shortages, lack of transport and access to the nearest food supply are issues biting into the nutritional well-being of many people today.

The cost of food and capability to cook, and to know how to substitute expensive foods for cheaper foods (without the loss of nutritional quality) can be particularly challenging.

  • Emotions

Our moods, body image, habits, motivations, feelings of self-worth can all get in the way of the food choices that we make on a daily basis.7

Finding the support that you need

Research into the way athletes can learn about nutrition have identified some key environmental factors that can help and that may also apply to non-athletes:

  • People need support to make dietary changes that recognizes the emotional barriers and high pressures that they face in order to perform each day.8
  • In group settings athletes respond well to well qualified facilitators who exhibit an honest, understanding and nonjudgmental approach and who are up-to-date themselves.9
  • Making changes to behaviour takes time a minimum of 5-6 months of practice in order for it to become a habit.9
  • Athletes like personal programs in which they can gather information; get a nutrition prescription; negotiate goals and actions; make nutrition recommendations and monitor progress through regular follow-ups and feedback.10
  • Athletes thrive in a culture that is understanding, motivating and aspirational and that supports their long-term health not just their short-term performance. Coaches who talk tough, lack empathy, threaten players with demotion or pressure dietary restrictions based on their own unsubstatiated personal advice, may do more harm than good.8  A good team culture helps athletes to flourish, reduces injury and promotes their long-term physical and mental health.

Moving Forward

It’s true that there is a lot of nutrition information available today, much of which you will understand.  However, if you are curious to find out if there are any gaps in your nutrition knowledge then here’s a couple of things you could do:

  • Check your learning preferences with this free VARK questionnaire 4
  • Check your own basic nutrition knowledge and also your understanding of sports nutrition by completing this free nutrition questionnaire with PEAKS-NQ 11

(i.e Platform to Evaluate Athlete’s Knowledge of Sports Nutrition Questionaire has been developed by Sydney University)

  • If you would like to translate the information and knowledge that you do have into a nutrition action plan to improve your health and fitness or to manage your weight or correct any abnormal blood test result’s that have cropped up recently, then do contact me soon.

*** There are many references to athletes in this article. This is not just a reflection of my own interest as a Sports Dietitian but also the eagerness with which many graduates in Human Nutrition recenlty have embrassed research into how athletes aquire nutrition knowledge and the science behind their behaviour. Hopefully the basic themes covered will be of help to non-athletes as well.


Other articles by Lea on similar topics:

Are you an emotional eater?

Are you energy deficient?

Dietary guidelines are constantly changing are they still relevant?

Are you malnourished?

Retiring athletes may need to rethink their diet

Healthy at every size (HAES)


1.Naisbett, J. Aburdene, P. Ten new directions for the 1990’s. Megatrends 2000-Goodreads Pub.

2.Schonfeldt, H. Hall,N. Consumer education on the health benefits of red meat. A multidisciplinary approach. Food Research International June 2012. Vol 47, (2) 152-155.

3.Quaidoo, E.Y. et al. Sources of nutritional information and level of nutritional knowledge among young adults in Accura Metropolis. BMC Public Health 18; 1323 (2018).

4   Fleming, N. The Vark questionaire

5  Fleming,N. Facts, fallacies and Myths: VARK and learning preferences

6.Gardener, H The Seven Learning Styles 2013

7.Burkhart, S. Assessment of nutrition knowledge and food skill in talented adolescent athletes.Thesis Massey University, NZ 2010 sequence=1&isAllowed=y

8.Bently, M. Patterson, L. Mitchell, N. Athletes perspective of enablers and barriers to nutritiona adherence in high performance sport. Thesis Massey University, NZ 2019     AndBarriersToNutritionalAdherenceInHighPerformanceSportAM-BENTLEY.pdf

9.McCauley, M. What are athletes preferences regarding nutrition education programmes Thesis Massey University NZ 2020 sequence=3&isAllowed=y

10.Mustafa, N., Safii, N. S., Mohamad, M. I., Sameeha, M. J., Rahman, A. H. A., Ahmad, A., Poh, B. K. (2020). Sports nutritionists adopt the nutrition care process (NCP) road map to develop individualized meal planning for athletes. [thesis].


About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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