InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Future of Food > Section 1: Introduction > Module 3: Diet and Nutrition
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Module 3: Diet and Nutrition

Steven Vanek, Pennsylvania State University, Department of Geography
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Module 3 covers the nutritional needs to which human consumption patterns ideally respond within food systems, and some of the nutritional challenges (related to both deficit and excess of diet components) that are currently faced by consumers in a wide variety of food systems. Module 3.1 engages students in learning basic human nutritional requirements and features of diets that are health-promoting. Module 3.2 covers current issues within food systems of malnutrition, as well as the challenges and efforts aimed at making diets healthier, both in the US and around the world. We also encourage learners to think about how these nutritional principles and efforts to promote food access and healthier diets fit into the analysis of the region that you select for your capstone.

Learning Goals


  • Describe the basic elements of a healthy diet from a scientific standpoint
  • Describe current major nutrition challenges and their immediate causes, such as nutrient deficiencies and calorie overconsumption.
  • Relate current major nutrition challenges to social factors such as food access and changing diets in modern food systems.

Learning Objectives

After completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Describe the basic categories of nutrients and how these contribute to human function and health.
  • Describe the major changes taking place in diet/nutrition in rich and poor countries, respectively.
  • Define the concept of food access and the term "food desert" as contrasted to the broader concepts of food security and food insecurity.
  • Understand changes in thinking around healthy nutrition and basic principles that have remained.
  • Use an online nutrition tool to analyze and compare diets and areas in which they are deficient or excessive in nutrients.
  • Analyze why food access is an issue in modern food systems.
  • Use a mapping tool to analyze the situation of food access U.S. cities, and relate these situations of food access to literature describing the history of strategies to guarantee food access in these cities.

Context for Use

This two-part module is designed for one week of classroom sessions, either as two or three classroom sessions or as a blended format with out-of-classroom reading and work followed by a classroom session to introduce and begin the summative assessment. An all-online format could also be used, although we piloted the module in the blended format. Module three is designed to give students some fundamental knowledge of human nutrition as well as such issues as malnutrition and limited food access, which are major challenges in food systems. It is not intended to replace a full-semester course in nutrition or nutrition issues in food systems, but is featured as one aspect of sustainability and other challenges faced by food systems within this course. However, it could provide a brief introduction to nutrition issues in other courses on food systems or food policy, or a short segment on nutrition for a course on sustainable agriculture and food production, or international agriculture and rural development.

The module is designed for learners in their first two years of undergraduate education or students in other disciplines looking for an introduction to nutrition challenges in food systems.

Description and Teaching Materials

This module introduces students to human nutrition issues in the food system using the following activities:
  • Online reading of the course pages in the two modules, one focused on biological aspects of human nutrient requirements and common deficiencies around the world, and the second focused on systemic challenges for adequate and health-promoting nutrition in a variety of food systems.
  • Activities focused on some of the detailed knowledge regarding human nutrition in the reading.
  • The use of a diet assessment tool in the formative assessment to improve understanding of nutritional needs and how these compare to some typical diets.
  • Weighing options for overall improvement of the food system and common debates around nutrition, such as the threat posed by different sources of fat in the diet, or evaluating the role of organic and local foods in addressing healthy food shortages among people who lack access to to healthier diets.
  • A summative assessment that asks students to analyze issues of food access in two U.S. cities and the lessons emerging from each city's case, which also includes the application of an online mapping tool.

The module can be completed by students in a variety of online and classroom options. Students can complete the readings and knowledge checks before class, and then prepare for and begin the summative assessment in-class after addressing questions about the module material. A completely online format is also possible, especially if instructors are available on discussion boards, chats, or other formats to address questions and introduce students to the rhythm and style of completing assignments online. In an all-classroom format, each of the two module sections would be used to structure a class, with class time in the first session used to address questions about human nutrition needs and human diet issues, and a second classroom session focused on food access, chronic diseased, and beginning the summative assessment as an assignment among pairs of students.

Teaching Notes and Tips

What works best for the module

The two parts of this module are segmented. Module 3.1 addresses human nutrition and diet needs at a more biological level, linking the components of a healthy diet to particular global challenges in nutrient deficiencies. Meanwhile Module 3.2 takes a more systemic approach in presenting major food system challenges such as malnutrition, chronic diet-related diseases, and low levels of food access ("food deserts"). It will likely work well to lay this out explicitly for students to guide their progress through the modules and as an item for metacognition: a focus first on biology followed by a look at the social systems surrounding and confronting challenges to meet biological needs. The nutrition assessment, using the online diet tool, was an enjoyable activity for many students. It provokes a lot of reactions and is a good choice for sharing in class and online discussion if this is possible. We found it good for students to work in pairs on the summative assessment. Also, during the pilot at one of the campuses there were nutrition students in the class for whom nutrition issues were a very familiar subject, and it may help to intersperse such students in groups with other non-nutrition students so that peer to peer learning can occur.

What students found difficult

  • Completing and keeping up with the reading in the online text, and outside readings designed to foster understanding, was a constant challenge during the piloting of the modules in this course. We used quizzes to try to incentivize doing the readings and understanding the basic nutrition and diet requirements and the fundamental nutrition issues facing food systems.
  • To understand the mapping criteria for food deserts, students may need some assistance with the mapping tool that is part of the summative assessment.
  • In the summative assessment, assembling an analysis of why Philadelphia was successful in increasing access to food and applying it to the case of another city is a complex undertaking. It may be helpful for the instructor to keep tabs on the summative assessment groups to pose guiding questions, and/or discuss briefly in the whole class to list out some the reasons for food deserts and strategies to combat them, to enrich the work of students on the summative assessment.


This module is structured around building some basic concepts of diet and nutrition that can be referred to throughout the course. There are linkages to modules further along, such as Module 6 and crop characteristics, which link to diet roles of different crops (cereals as combination of carbohydrates with limited ranges of protein, legumes as complementing with additional protein) and Module 10 on vulnerability, which links to food insecurity and poor food access.


Students complete formative assessment 3.1 using an online diet tool to compare diets and draw main lessons about the important parts of a healthy diet. They also complete summative assessment 3.2 asking them to compare the situation of food access in two cities, and suggest solutions for a city with lower levels of food access by drawing on a short reading about efforts to improve food access in Philadelphia. In the formative assessment, students' answers should show that they have used the tool in an engaged way to analyze the key elements of a healthy diet, such as diversity among cereals, protein sources, and fruits and vegetables. In the summative assessment students need to demonstrate an ability to use map-reading skills to analyze the food access status of different city neighborhoods, and then draw on a number of sources, such as a short reading and a radio clip, to formulate recommendations to increase broad-based food access in neighborhoods of Houston.

References and Resources

Houston Public Media. 2013. "Houston Matters: Food Deserts in Houston". Online access at

Millstone, E., and T. Lang. 2013. The Atlas of Food. Earthscan Publications: An excellent source for visualizations of current worldwide nutrition challenges in vitamin deficiencies, calorie consumption, vitamin A, and other nutrition challenges.

Winne, M. 2008. Closing the food gap: Resetting the table in the land of plenty. Beacon Press: This is a source for a short reading that is presented in the summative assessment.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »