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Best Practices for Creating Nutrition Education Materials

Given your skills as a health communicator, you are uniquely able to develop education materials for your target audience based on the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines.

Before developing messages and materials from scratch, it’s a good idea to first check for existing resources that can be used or adapted to meet the needs of your audience. For a list of ready-made resources currently available from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, see the Resources section.

When you decide to create your own nutrition education materials based on the Dietary Guidelines please consider the following five best practices:

  1. Know your audience
  2. Tailor messages and materials to your audience
  3. Use plain language
  4. Be aware of health literacy
  5. Maximize impact through partnerships

1. Know your audience

Health literacy is the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.Who is your audience? To best tailor educational materials, first define your audience with as much detail as possible. Consider the questions below when defining your audience. If you are unsure of the answers, you could also speak with key informants, such as health professionals, community leaders, educators, business leaders, and government staff.

  • What are the demographics characteristics?
    For example: adults, children, teens, older adults, women who are pregnant
     
  • What is their primary language?
     
  • What is their reading ability, education level and level of health literacy?
     
  • Are there relevant cultural practices to keep in mind?
    • Religious practices
      Examples: dietary restrictions, religious fasting
    • Cultural foods
      Examples: staple foods, celebration foods, food availability
    • Social norms (i.e., behaviors considered acceptable within a group)
       
  • Find health stats for specific geographic areas using the CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) online tools.Do they have specific nutritional or health concerns?
    For example: diabetes, hypertension, obesity, food allergies
    • Is the goal of your communication material to help prevent a condition (i.e., primary prevention) or to reduce the impact of a condition (i.e., secondary prevention)?
       
  • What are barriers to behavior change?
    Examples: time, financial constraints, giving up favorite foods, food availability, cooking skills, motivation, readiness for change
     
  • What are motivators for behavior change?
    Examples: feeling healthy, appearance, disease prevention, weight management
     
  • Through which types of media do they receive health messages?
    Examples: online, mobile apps, social media, TV, magazines, radio, newspaper, text messages
     
  • Have you conducted a needs assessment?
    Gain insights about your target audience by conducting a needs assessment via survey, interviews, or focus groups. Or, 
 

 
Communicator Spotlight: Cynthia is a WIC nutritionist who primarily serves mothers who are low-income and live in a rural area. When developing a handout on planning balanced meals, she first defines her audience as mothers who are low-income and whose primary language is English. She recognizes from previous interactions with her audience that many have lower health literacy. She has also found that building a healthy meal with colorful foods is a concept that resonates with many. Barriers to change include lack of financial resources and lack of time, and motivators include family and a healthy future.
 

2. Tailor messages and materials to your audience

Once you have a good understanding of your target audience, you can tailor your messages and educational materials to best meet their needs. Follow the steps below to develop content that is tailored to your audience.

Define communication objectives > Determine best method of delivery > Draft key messages and content > Review/test and revise

  • Define communication objectives
    Before drafting any content, determine your communication objective(s). Think about what outcome you would like your audience to achieve through your communication material. You can use the format below to help you write your objective(s).
    Table
    Example: I want to motivate mothers who are low-income to serve their children more fruits and vegetables.

    Evaluation metric: Increase the amount of fruits and vegetables served to children measured by baseline and follow up surveys.


     
  • Consider partnering with another organization to help you reach your audience through the optimal communication channel.Determine the best method of delivery
    When choosing a delivery method, it can be helpful to consider the following three questions:
    • What communication channels does my audience already use?
    • What communication channels do they trust?
    • What communication channels might they be most receptive to?
 

For communication strategies that work, base them on behavior change theory: •	Stages of Change Model •	Behavioral Intentions •	Communications for Persuasion •	Health Belief Model •	Social Cognitive TheoryConsider communication channels such as: 

  • Social media — for short messages, snippets of content, graphic-heavy content, two-way communication
    Examples : Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram
     
  • Print materials — for static content, visual content, reproducible content
    Examples: handouts, brochures, posters
     
  • Digital content — for dynamic content, how-to tutorials, information available on-the-go
    Examples: websites, blog posts, videos, apps
     
  • Mass media — for large-scale public health campaigns
    Examples: radio, TV, newspapers, news websites
     
  • Draft key messages and content
    When drafting content, consider the following three questions:
    • What does my audience know?
    • What does my audience need to know?
    • What questions will my audience have?

      The following checklist can help you draft and organize content that is easy to understand.
       
      There are no more than 3-4 key messages
      < Content is clear and concise
      Does not include unnecessary (or “nice to know”) information
      Most important information is first
      Includes visuals to help explain the messages
      Information is segmented using headings, subheadings, and bulleted lists
      Action steps/desired behaviors for the audience are clearly stated

       

  • Review/test and revise
    Before finalizing your communication materials, test them with your audience to determine if they meet your objective(s). You can test your messages informally or through a formal focus group or survey. Make updates as needed, and if possible, re-evaluate effectiveness.
    It’s also a good idea to double check the accuracy of your messages. Best practices include:
    • Using the audience-tested MyPlate consumer messages.
    • Developing messages that are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines.
    • Being mindful of label claims
      Example: To say a food is an "excellent source of" a particular nutrient you want to get more of, it must contain 20% or more of the Daily Value (DV) per Reference Amount Customarily Consumed per Eating Occasion (RACC).  

 


 
Now that Cynthia, a WIC nutritionist, has defined her audience, she’s ready to develop her handout on planning balanced meals. The moms she serves already know that healthy eating is important, but they don’t know how to plan balanced meals that incorporate multiple food groups. Her objective is to motivate her audience to serve their children balanced meals. She chooses to develop a handout that she can give to each mom she counsels. She drafts three tailored messages based on the recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines and shares them with a few of the moms. She makes sure to include one about building colorful meals. Cynthia revises the messages based on their feedback and drafts the remainder of the content for the handout.

The following Federal resource is available to help you develop communication materials:

 

3. Use plain language

Material is written in plain language if your audience can:  •	Find what they need.  •	Understand what they find. •	Use what they find to meet their needs.Plain language is language your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Plain language is written using words, sentences, and phrasing that your audience understands and feels comfortable with. No single technique defines plain language. Plain language is defined by results — it is easy to read, understand, and use.

Consider the following plain language techniques when developing written communication materials:

  • Organize materials with the reader in mind
    Think through the questions your audience is likely to ask and then organize your material in the order they’d ask them.
     
  • Address separate audiences individually
    If you have more than one audience for your document, address each one separately. Make it easy for your audience to find the information that applies to them. Also, put general information first, followed by exceptions and specialized information.
     
  • Use simple headings
    Use short, clear headings to organize information. Headings should be shorter than the content that follows.
     
  • Use pronouns such as “you”
    Pronouns help the audience picture themselves in the text and relate better to your materials.
     
  • Write in the active voice
    Active voice makes it clear who is supposed to do what.

    Example: Say — “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.”
    Instead of — “Fruits and vegetables should make up half of the plate.”
     
  • Use short sentences
    Use short sentences that are to the point rather than long, complex sentences containing multiple phrases and clauses.

    Example: Say — “Make at least half your grains whole grains.”
    Instead of — “When consuming grains, make sure at least half of your total grain intake comes from whole grains.”
     
  • Include examples
    Good examples can substitute for long explanations. By giving your audience an example that’s relevant to their situation, you help them relate to your document.
     
  • Choose common everyday words
    Use everyday words instead of jargon or technical terms, and refrain from using (or clearly define) abbreviations.
     
    Instead of Try
    Consume Eat or drink
    Overconsume Eat too much
    Adequate Enough
    Lipids Fat
    Hypertension High blood pressure
    Cardiovascular Heart
    Mortality Death

     
  • Use an appropriate reading level
    Materials are often written at a reading level too high for most readers. Use online tools or Microsoft Word to calculate the reading level of your materials. 
     
  • Create simple lists and tables
    Use bulleted lists to help your audience focus on important material, and use tables to help them see relationships that can be hidden in dense text.
     
  • Are your communication materials easy to understand? To find out, use the Clear Communication Index, a research-based tool to help you develop and assess communication materials for the public.Focus on positive actions
    People are more motivated by positive messages than negative. Tell them what to do instead of what not to do.

    Example: Say — “Choose foods that are lower in sodium.”
    Instead of — “Don’t eat foods that are high in sodium.”
     
  • Use visuals
    Illustrations and diagrams can reinforce text. Many people can learn as much from a simple image than several paragraphs of text.
     
  • Test your materials
    Test your materials, even if you only have a draft, with the intended audience and revise as needed.

While drafting her handout, Cynthia applies plain language principles. She uses everyday words, bulleted lists, and simple visuals. Her key content is summarized at the top with details underneath. When she finishes her first draft, she shares it with one of the moms she counsels to get some initial feedback and uses the Clear Communication Index tool to identify other areas for improvement. After making revisions, Cynthia feels confident that she has developed a piece that is easy to understand and actionable.


The following Federal plain language resources are available:


4. Health literacy and other considerations

A person’s health literacy is their capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. To develop communication materials that are easy to understand and act upon, consider the health literacy of your audience.

Obtain, Process, Understand, Decide
 
 

 

Why is health literacy important?

  • Nearly 9 out of 10 adults have difficulty using everyday health information.
  • Limited health literacy is associated with poorer health outcomes and higher health care costs.
  • Materials developed using healthy literacy principles are:  •	Easy for the intended audience to understand •	Culturally and linguistically appropriate •	Accurate, accessible, and actionableLimited health literacy affects people’s ability to:
    • Search for and use health information
    • Adopt healthy behaviors
    • Act on important public health alerts
  • Populations most likely to experience low health literacy include:
    • Older adults
    • Racial and ethnic minorities
    • People who do not have a high school degree
    • People experiencing low-income levels
    • Non-native speakers of English
    • People with compromised health status

Your audience must understand your message to act upon it
When developing communication materials, make sure your message is clear and easy to understand through the following filters:

  • Literacy
    The ability to understand words and text
    Example: Brown rice is a whole-grain food.
     
  • Numeracy
    The ability to understand numbers and mathematical concepts
    Example: Cooked brown rice has 3.5 grams of fiber in a 1-cup portion.
     
  • Graphicacy
    The ability to understand graphs, charts, images, and diagrams
    Example
    Chart of Amount of Fiber in Rice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following Federal health literacy resources are available:


5. Maximize impact through partnerships

Communication partnerships are important because they bring organizations together to communicate a shared message. By speaking with one voice on a topic, professionals and organizations can maximize their message output and increase the chances of their message getting to its intended audience.

The USDA/CNPP Nutrition Communicators Network provides an opportunity for different communities and different organizations to join together in helping promote the Dietary Guidelines. Check out the MyPlate Nutrition Communicators Network, and find the group that is right for you: Community Partners, National Strategic Partners, MyPlate Campus Ambassadors, and Federal Collaboration Partners.


Cynthia has been using her balanced meals handout with the moms she counsels in her WIC clinic for a month and is getting very positive feedback. Several moms told her they refer to the handout often at home and have changed their behavior based on the information provided. Cynthia decides to share her handout with other professionals by posting it to an online community message board for WIC dietitians.

Other health communication partnerships you can join include: