How nutrition education can improve health literacy in Australia

Australian health literacy

In the sphere of public health, understanding "What is health literacy" is paramount for informed decision-making.

This exploration into health literacy reveals how nutrition education, led by professionals and students, shapes a healthier narrative in Australia. It aims for improved public health outcomes and a resilient healthcare system in the region. We spoke with Louise Rubic, Senior Learning Facilitator (Health) and Clinical Nutrition lead, on the importance of nutrition education.

What is health literacy?

Health literacy refers to the ability to obtain, understand, evaluate and use health information and services to make informed health decisions. It can include how well an individual can comprehend and act upon medical and health-related information such as understanding their doctor’s instructions, interpreting the nutrition information panel on packaged food or navigating the health system to access appropriate services.

There is not one instruction manual that addresses the health needs of all Australians. However, having health literacy can make finding and understanding information easier for specific health needs.

Why is health literacy important?

Health literacy is important for several reasons:

  • It is a critical determinant of health for individuals and their community and is linked to improved health outcomes. For example, with higher health literacy individuals are better equipped to understand their health condition and treatments available. This understanding can lead to better management of chronic diseases and more effective use of treatments.
  • Health literacy enables improved communication with health professionals where meaningful questions can be asked and health advice is more easily understood.
  • Health literacy helps to empower individuals to take control of their health and wellbeing by providing the confidence and knowledge to make informed health decisions.

How does health literacy affect the community and the medical system?

With better health literacy, individuals are more likely to engage in preventative health measures such as regular screening. This proactive approach can help prevent or manage potential health issues which ultimately reduces healthcare costs for the individual, their community and the health system.

Better health literacy across the community supports effective health promotion which means that public health information is more easily understood — guidelines adhered to — such as how to prevent the spread of certain diseases and how many fruits and vegetables to eat in a day.

What are some common health literacy issues seen in the community in Australia?

It is estimated that up to 60% of Australian adults have lower than adequate health literacy and struggle to make sense of health-related educational information. Low health literacy can have serious consequence leading to poorer health outcomes.

Chronic diseases such as respiratory conditions and diabetes, require certain levels of health literacy to manage the condition and understand how to deal with exacerbations if they arise. However, health literacy does not just depend on an individual’s capacity.

Health literacy also requires that the information from healthcare systems and healthcare practitioners is easily available and understood. This is why the Australian Government has prioritised health literacy in their National Preventative Health Strategy. This is in recognition that higher levels of health literacy contribute to better quality care and more positive health outcomes.

What is the National Preventative Health Strategy?

Around 80% of Australian adults live with at least one long-term health condition. Chronic health issues with more lasting health impacts account for nearly 50% of these conditions. Respiratory diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and mental and behavioural conditions including dementia, are among the leading health issues experienced by Australians.

It is recognised that the burden of chronic disease care could be improved by 38% if health care systems shift priority to preventive health. This would include measures such as prevention of obesity, promotion of physical activity and reducing the use of alcohol and smoking which are all seen as risk factors for developing a chronic disease.

The Australian Government launched the National Preventative Health Strategy in 2021 which outlines a number of key health goals to be striving for by 2030. Improving health literacy is weaved throughout the strategy with a focus on seven health goals critical to positive, preventative health – good nutrition, increased physical activity, reduction in smoking, engagement in immunisation and cancer screening programs, support for mental health and reduction in alcohol and other drug use.

How do qualified nutritionists and nutritional students help health literacy and the National Preventative Health Strategy?

Qualified nutritionists play a pivotal role in helping to ensure the expected accomplishments from the National Preventative Health Strategy are achieved. Nutritionists develop important skills in communication and education so that health messages regarding anything related to food and health can be shared and understood by communities and individuals.

This is vital to slow down and reverse the trend of 27,500 Australians dying from preventable diseases related to unhealthy diets. Lifelong good health and wellbeing starts early in life with a solid nutritional foundation to grow healthy humans.

For any age, whether it is through community-based programs or individual consultations, nutritionists work with people to meet the recommended targets of fruit and vegetables, reduce salt and sugar, and support breastfeeding.

Student clinical nutritionists are taught how to collaborate with individuals on their health goals, building their health literacy and thereby empowering people to make the most appropriate choices for their own health. Like building your own instruction manual for working toward and maintaining a healthy life.

The National Preventative Health Strategy includes references to action plans and guidelines such as the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and the National Obesity Prevention Strategy 2020. Communicating the information in these guides is where the expertise of experienced nutritionists is needed.

Of course, there are many other influences that shape a person diet and lifestyle such accessibility of fresh food and having the physical ability to shop and prepare meals. The National Preventative Health Strategy recognises the many influences on health and is a step in the right direction toward informing actions that will reduce the number of early deaths from preventable disease.

Check our Nutrition Courses to learn more
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