How to Explain Basic Nutrition Concepts

Use these illustrations when helping educate Central American communities. You can download and print full-size versions by clicking on the thumbnail-size versions below.

 runner illustration: Runner Illustration: Blocks Illustration: Blocks Illustration:

Illustration of child running to depict energy

Illustration of building blocks to depict protein and other nutrients

Flex Muscle Illustration: Flex Muscle Illustration: Grow Up Illustration: Grow Up Illustration:

Illustration of child flexing muscle to depict protein

Illustration of healthy growth and development

Blood Drop Illustration: Blood Drop Illustration: Skeleton Illustration: Skeleton Illustration: human skeleton

Illustration of "strong" blood to depict iron and other nutrients

Illustration of "happy" skeleton to depict calcium and other nutrients

Eye Illustration: Eye Illustration:

Illustration of eye to depict vitamin A and other nutrients


According to a 2015 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics survey of health professionals with experience in Central America, populations in developing areas of this region lack basic knowledge of biology and physiology. Beginning with a discussion of basic health concepts and then explaining how nutrition affects our bodies is a good strategy.

Explaining Organ Functions

  • Lungs: provide oxygen to blood
  • Heart: circulates blood throughout the body
  • Stomach: helps digest food
  • Intestines: absorb nutrients from food
  • Liver: removes toxins from blood and processes nutrients from food
  • Kidneys: filter blood of waste and extra fluid

Explaining Nutrition

Nutrition is how food affects the health of the body. Food is essential—it provides vital nutrients for survival, and helps the body function and stay healthy. Food is comprised of macronutrients including protein, carbohydrate and fat that not only offer calories to fuel the body and give it energy but play specific roles in maintaining health. Food also supplies micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and phytochemicals that don't provide calories but serve a variety of critical functions to ensure the body operates optimally.

Explaining Macronutrients: Protein, Carbohydrate and Fat

Protein: Found in beef, pork, chicken, game and wild meats, fish and seafood, eggs, soybeans and other legumes included in traditional Central America cuisine, protein provides the body with amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins which are needed for growth, development, and repair and maintenance of body tissues. Protein provides structure to muscle and bone, repairs tissues when damaged and helps immune cells fight inflammation and infection.

Carbohydrates: The main role of a carbohydrate is to provide energy and fuel the body the same way gasoline fuels a car. Foods such as corn, chayote, beans, plantains, rice, tortilla, potatoes and other root vegetables such as yucca, bread and fruit deliver sugars or starches that provide carbohydrates for energy.

Energy allows the body to do daily activities as simple as walking and talking and as complex as running and moving heavy objects. Fuel is needed for growth, which makes sufficient fuel especially important for growing children and pregnant women. Even at rest, the body needs calories to perform vital functions such as maintaining body temperature, keeping the heart beating and digesting food.

Fat: Dietary fat, which is found in oils, coconut, nuts, milk, cheese, meat, poultry and fish, provides structure to cells and cushions membranes to help prevent damage. Oils and fats are also essential for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins including vitamin A, a nutrient important for healthy eyes and lungs.

Explaining Micronutrients: Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are food components that help support overall health and play important roles in cell metabolism and neurological functions.

Vitamins aid in energy production, wound healing, bone formation, immunity, and eye and skin health.

Minerals help maintain cardiovascular health and provide structure to the skeleton.

Consuming a balanced diet including fruits, vegetables, dairy, protein foods and whole or enriched grains helps ensure the body has plenty of nutrients to use. Providing a few examples of specific micronutrient functions can enhance the effectiveness of nutrition education:

  • Vitamin A helps the eyes to see
  • Calcium and magnesium help muscles and blood vessels relax, preventing cramps and high blood pressure
  • Vitamin C helps wounds heal and the body’s ability to fight off germs
  • Iron helps the blood transport oxygen throughout the body and prevents anemia

Explaining the Concept of Nutrients as Building Blocks

Building blocks include protein for growing babies in utero, for child and adolescent growth, and for repairing damaged skin, blood, and other body parts in adults who aren't growing. Some parts of the body are replaced regularly, like blood and skin, so even adults are building new body parts regularly. Calcium is also a building block for building bones. Iron is a building block for blood. Since blood cells only last a few months, the body constantly needs more iron and protein to make new blood.

Using Metaphors to Explain Nutrition

According to registered dietitian nutritionists with experience teaching nutrition in developing areas of Central America, metaphors and simple concepts are useful in teaching basic nutrition. An example of this could be conveying foods rich in carbohydrate as "go" foods, protein-rich foods as “grow” foods and colorful produce as "glow" foods. Health educators should emphasize that good nutrition requires eating at least one serving of these three types of food at each meal:

Foods Simple Concept of Function
Carbohydrate-rich foods Fuel
Protein-rich foods Building blocks
Fruits and Vegetables Helpers and protectors

Using Illustrations to Convey Basic Nutrition Concepts

Using actual local foods for hands-on meal planning and for teaching food categories helps low-literacy adults and children to understand nutrition. Health educators should try to acquire local foods to use in nutrition education in addition to laminated illustrations.

Due to minimal literacy among Central Americans, illustrations are as important as words in all visual materials. The following are examples of symbols that can represent the three basic reasons why the body needs a variety of foods:

Symbol Representing Function
Running child Food as fuel and carbohydrate for energy
Children stacking blocks Food and protein as building blocks
Child flexing muscle Protein for growth and strength
Growing child Growth made possible by good nutrition
Blood droplet Healthy blood made possible by eating iron-rich foods
Skeleton Healthy bones made possible by eating calcium-rich foods
Eye Healthy eyes made possible by eating foods containing vitamins A, C, E, zinc and phytochemicals
Food rainbow Vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that serve as "helpers and protectors" and to help the body "glow"

Additional Resources

  • Annigan J, Media D.What Does Food Provide in the Human Body. SF Gate. Accessed February 14, 2016
  • Hoy-Rosas J, Arrecis E, Avila M. Central American Food Practices. In Goody C, Drago L. Cultural Food Practices. United States of America. American Dietetic Association; 2010: 54-67.
  • Hoy-Rosas J, Arrecis E, Avila M. Central American Food Practices. In Goody C, Drago L. Cultural Food Practices. United States of America. American Dietetic Association; 2010: 54-67.
  • Mahan, L. Kathleen., Escott-Stump Syvlvia., Raymond, Janice L. Krause, Marie V., eds. Krause's Food & The Nutrition Care Process. 13th ed. St. Louis, MO. Elsevier/Saunders, 2012.
  • Nelms Marcia, Sucher Kathryn P, Roth Sara, Lacey, eds. Nutrition Therapy Pathophysiology. 2nd edition. Belmont, CA. Cengage Learning, 2010.