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By: Haley Singer, Undergraduate Student in Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

What is Nutrition Literacy?

Nutrition education is important to prevent disease and to not only increase longevity but the quality of life. One major obstacle to educating military families about good nutrition practices is nutrition literacy.

Nutrition Literacy (NL) is one’s ability to obtain, exercise, and comprehend basic nutrition information. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) conducted a large-scale study of about 19,000 US adults where analyses were drawn to represent the entire US population. These results indicated that only about 12% of US adults have competent health literacy.1

Why is it important to know the NL level of my patient?

  • You can provide education at a level of high comprehensibility.
  • To understand which areas of education your patients lack knowledge.
  • Low NL impairs an individual’s decision to make healthy choices daily.
  • To improve your communication with your patient.
  • Nutrition literacy has a strong correlation with diet quality.


Assess Your Patients Nutrition Literacy

The Nutrition Literacy Assessment Instrument (NLit) is a valid and reliable way to measure the nutrition literacy of adults in primary care. This assessment was reviewed for content validity by 135 registered dietitians (RDs). The NLit can be used both as a predictor of diet quality and a baseline test to conclude the nutrition literacy level of your patient.2

The NLit is composed of six domains:

  1. Nutrition & Health
  2. Energy Sources in Food
  3. Food Label & Numeracy
  4. Household Food Measurement
  5. Food Groups
  6. Consumer Skills.

Identify Techniques that Would Help You Best Communicate with Your Patient.

Use Visuals
For someone with low nutrition literacy, simple images may be a very useful tool for nutrition education. One example of how you can use these images is to describe the general functions of macronutrients. You can use an image of a person running to explain how carbohydrates provide fuel for our bodies.

Use Comparisons
When you use comparisons, you will help your patient better understand the information and make them more likely to commit it to long-term memory. Example: Compare amino acids to a child’s building blocks to help patients remember that they are the building blocks of protein. 

Provide Your Patient With Basic Nutrition Educational Resources

MyPlate provides an excellent visual of how each meal should look. It also goes into more detail about each recommendation and even provides example meals.

The MyPlate app is a good resource to help your patients further improve their nutrition knowledge and build healthy eating habits.

You can also YouTube videos or provide informational handouts from an RD to allow them to continue their nutrition education when you are not there.


A great majority of US adults are likely to be affected by low nutrition literacy.

Nutrition literacy is a strong predictor of diet quality.

As a nutrition educator, it is important to understand your patients’ level of NL to best understand how to assist them. The Nutrition Literacy Assessment Instrument (NLit)  is a tool you can use to identify your patients’ NL level successfully. Lastly, there are many things that you can do to make sure your patients understand the nutrition education you are providing them. You can use the NLit to decide what areas of nutrition they need the most education. You can use different learning tools to help your patient better understand and remember the information you teach them. Finally, you can provide your patients with resources to allow them to continually improve their level of NL, diet quality, and overall health.

To learn more about Nutrition Literacy, watch the recording of the webinar at  Dietitians and Diet Technicians can earn 1.0 free CPEU.

To watch the recording click the link below.

Communication for Patients with Low Nutrition Literacy


      1. White, S., Bennett, I., Cordell, T., & Baxter, S. L. (2007). Health Literacy of America’s Adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e530912012-001 
      2. Gibbs HD;Ellerbeck EF;Gajewski B;Zhang C;Sullivan DK;. (n.d.). The Nutrition Literacy Assessment Instrument is a Valid and Reliable Measure of Nutrition Literacy in Adults with Chronic Disease. Retrieved from

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