Why the Theme-Based Approach in Nutrition?

Published October 12, 2021

By Megan Sanctuary, MS, PhD

What’s the hardest part about teaching STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) courses to students who are not majoring in these fields? If you are like me, you might answer: keeping them interested! Conventional approaches to teaching the Biology of Nutrition put the burden of relevancy on you, the instructor. You must take a complicated chapter on metabolism and then try to explain to students why B vitamins are important.

Conventional textbooks disconnect the real world into separate categories. They take an apple and yank it apart, putting fiber into one chapter, vitamins in another, and antioxidants in yet another. Many students thrive with this approach because these categories fit into the biological framework that they learn in other classes. As dietitians, scientists, and instructors, we are also comfortable with this approach because it is how we were taught nutrition and how we think about these topics. But is this the best way to teach students who may never move forward in any type of class or career in health science? We must carefully consider the most important takeaways that we want our non-majors to get out of our courses. First, we want our students to be able to apply the information we provide them to their daily lives. Second, we want them to gain an appreciation of Biology and understand why the Biology of Nutrition is so important to their health.

A theme-based approach to teaching Nutrition prioritizes both of these goals. And it all begins with relevancy. What are the questions that general education students have about Nutrition? They probably aren’t asking: how do B vitamins function as coenzymes? They are asking: do B vitamins in my Monster drink really give me energy? They might also want to know just what those other ingredients in their drinks do. In a conventional class, perhaps you give an energy drink as an example of a food that contains B vitamins (and added sugar!). Maybe you also have a slide in your lecture devoted to caffeine. But are students really making the connections and learning what they want to know? They may not be.

Or perhaps you already have a unit on energy drinks that you teach in your course to bring the concepts of energy metabolism, B vitamins, sugar, and caffeine together in a way that is meaningful and relevant to your students. Unfortunately, if you are currently trying to teach Nutrition using a theme-based approach, you are likely working against your textbook. You may even be assigning reading from different sections of different chapters, trying to help students make connections.

Conventional textbooks pull nutritional concepts apart, so that if you want to bring them back together, you must do it yourself. And that is quite an overwhelming task. I know, because I’ve done it! Theme-based books make the task of teaching a relevancy-based approach easier by bringing all those connected concepts back together for you. The relevancy comes first. Only after the student is hooked does the text dive deeper into the science.

Theme-based textbooks make the connections that students yearn for. Once students make the connections, the knowledge falls into place. They can then apply that real knowledge to making healthy diet and lifestyle choices on a daily basis (or at least being aware that they are making poor choices!). In addition, the material is presented in an interesting and applicable way, so that students are more likely to carry that information with them when they walk out of your classroom.

Megan Sanctuary, MS, PhD, received her MS in molecular and integrative physiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and her PhD in nutrition biology from the University of California at Davis. She has taught a wide variety of courses, including introductory nutition, anatomy and physiology, and general biology. Dr. Sanctuary has published and presented in many areas of research, including the interactions among diet, the immune system, and microbiota. She has a special interest in food as medicine, precision nutrition, and the effects of early nutrition on health and disease later in life. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her familly, reading, and doing yoga.