Unlocking the Trends in Nutrition Communication

By: Katherine Rapp

“Have you seen that new nutrition documentary on Netflix? It’s right up your alley.”

After multiple recommendations, I sat down to watch You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment. The 2024 documentary is a fascinating look at the effects of a healthy omnivore diet versus a plant-based diet. What struck me the most was how many food and nutrition-related topics it covered throughout the course of four episodes.

As a public health communicator with a background in food science, I began to view the documentary as a compilation of different approaches for communicating about food and nutrition to the public. In fact, the documentary taps into four key trends that communicators can use to effectively talk about and educate people on food and nutrition.

Trend #1: Frame Food as Medicine 

The first and most obvious trend seen in the documentary is food as medicine, which involves emphasizing the preventive and healing properties of food. Food as medicine is a way of communicating about nutrition that encourages people to view their dietary choices as part of their overall health. It promotes the idea that by consuming a balanced and varied diet that is rich in whole foods, people can help prevent and manage chronic diseases, boost their immune system, and support optimal health.

Rather than focusing on treating the symptoms of chronic health conditions with medications, food as medicine goes to the root cause and looks at what people are putting in their bodies and how that affects health outcomes. This preventive, positive approach is being used more and more broadly, by grocery stores, meal delivery programs, and even the federal government. By positioning food as medicine in communication about nutrition, communicators can inspire others to take action to improve their health through what they eat.

Trend #2: Storytelling Sings

While the documentary covers a lot—everything from visceral fat to the gut microbiome to epigenetics and biological age—it doesn’t feel like the video equivalent of a nutrition textbook. The way it accomplishes this approachable, engaging tone is through strong storytelling.

The documentary follows four sets of twins on their journeys following either an omnivore diet or a plant-based diet. They represent a range of ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds, and we learn about their unique struggles and successes throughout the course of the study. By anchoring the documentary among these eight people, we learn about the science of nutrition with them and get context on what these concepts mean for real people and their lives.

Like for many other complex health topics, nutrition communication must be evidence-based and backed by science. Being factually correct isn’t the only thing, however; communicators should create a connection with people by showcasing the stories of others to whom they can relate.

Trend #3: Connect It to Culture

Even though nutrition is a science, it’s also an art—because people and the food they put on their plates do not exist in a vacuum. Food is a powerful cultural symbol that represents the traditions, beliefs, and values of different communities. It is a medium through which people can express their identity and heritage. It is essential that food and nutrition are not divorced from their cultural context.

Along these lines, it’s essential that nutrition educators develop culturally competent communications materials and resources that are appropriate and relevant to people and their unique backgrounds. Additionally, nutrition communication must acknowledge and integrate the drivers of health, recognizing that access to nutritious food, socio-economic status, education, and cultural norms significantly influence dietary choices and health outcomes. By doing so, it can address health inequities, tailor interventions to specific community needs, and promote a more inclusive approach to nutrition.

Trend #4: It’s All One Health

What sets this documentary apart from other recent nutrition documentaries is its integration of One Health topics. One Health emphasizes the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health and the importance of collaboration among these related stakeholders. Essentially, it says that we can’t talk about human nutrition without talking about livestock and cattle production, agricultural practices, and climate change.

The documentary posits that the same things that promote our health also promote the health of our environment. It takes us across the globe to look at how concentrated animal feeding operations expose humans to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, industrial fishing depletes the diversity of ocean ecosystems, and the magnitude of livestock raised for meat is warming the planet to dangerous levels.

The documentary also highlights promising solutions that span human, animal, and environmental health – including urban agriculture, plant-based alternatives to animal products, and introducing healthful and culturally relevant food options in hospitals. It’s important for communicators to have this same solutions-focused approach and to look at nutrition messaging through the lens of health across sectors.

By tapping into these four trends, communicators can work to effectively engage people with the nutrition information they need. Communicators can motivate people to improve their health through what’s on their plate while connecting to their own experiences and tying to the broader context of our collective health.