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Understanding Health

What is health?

Health has been defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a state of complete physical, mental and social well being.

A healthy body can provide a person with a greater ability to deal with everyday life - by helping to fight of infections, deal with everyday stresses on the mind and body and do all the things they want to do.  When we consider health we tend to think about our physical health which refers to our organs, muscles, bones etc. and also of our mental health which is defined as a state of emotional and psychological well-being.  Many factors affect our physical and mental health, and it is important to understand these factors as they will affect how the body responds to different nutrients and diets as a whole. A greater understanding will allow you to develop an appreciation of which diets are most suited to yourself or to an individual client based on their own specific needs. Here we shall consider these different factors:

Age

Our bodies respond to the ageing process in a number of ways.  These changes include a loss of muscle mass which causes us to progressively lose strength and become weaker, and a reduced functioning of the nervous system making us more prone to mental illness.  Diet and lifestyle can help delay some of the age related illnesses

Gender

Gender has a number of effects on health. Overall women are more likely to visit a doctor than men and more likely to take medicines, but male death rates are higher in all age groups. In particular men have a higher mortality from heart disease, higher rates of injuries from accidents, and greater incidence of lifestyle related illness such as lung disease associated with smoking and alcohol related liver disease.

Gender and diet/lifestyle

While a healthy diet is an effective way of preventing chronic disease in both men and women, some nutritional guidelines are gender specific and when planning a therapeutic diet for a man or woman it is essential to take into account a person’s gender so appropriate intakes of energy and nutrients can be recommended

Physical activity

Physical activity is related to many different aspects of human health. Among the many benefits, activity can help in weight control and protect against heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. Physical activity can also benefit mental health by helping to improve mood and reduce stress.

Research around diet and activity has shown close links between activity and diet. Like dietary restrictions, activity has been shown to be especially beneficial to people aiming to lose weight while evidence also suggests that people who engage in regular physical activity are more likely to follow a healthy diet and not require dietary intervention in the first place. Physical activity also helps to raise the metabolic rate by raising lean body mass and can also help a person become more sensitive to the physiological signs of fullness which is again linked to improved weight control. Due to the many benefits of physical activity, it is generally recommended to do around 30 minutes of physical exercise around 5 times a week.

Genetic predisposition

Research suggests that genetics play a role in a number of conditions including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mental health. In these instances while diet and lifestyle factors have important roles in reducing the risk of disease, an individual can have a higher risk of developing a condition even if they have a healthy diet and lifestyle. Genetics can also be directly responsible for some inherited health conditions such as muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. In these conditions dietary change may be an important aspect of managing different symptoms, for example patients with cystic fibrosis tend to have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight and can require nutritional support to gain weight or prevent further weight loss.

Obesity is one area of controversy when considering genetic predisposition. Research has shown a genetic influence on obesity and scientists have isolated genes affecting metabolism, appetite and the distribution of fat within the body. But while genes can put some people at a higher risk of developing obesity, lifestyle factors will affect whether obesity develops ad individuals can still avoid obesity through following a healthy balanced diet and taking regular physical activity.

Environmental influences on health

Environmental factors can influence health in a number of ways.  These factors include natural factors such as the weather and bacteria, viruses and animal life, together with human derived factors including tobacco smoke, housing problems, traffic, and chemical pollutants. The environment a person is exposed to also impacts on a person’s dietary habits and their levels of physical activity- two factors which will in turn affect their health. It is therefore essential to understand the impact of the environment before planning any dietary intervention. For example, when advising a person to consume a healthy diet a practitioner should be aware of possible environmental constraints such as their access to healthy foods and leisure facilities i.e. is there a shop near to a client’s home that sells healthy food and is it affordable to them? Also will the client be able to travel to a leisure facility or access open spaces such as parks?

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