What is… Biological Determinants of Health

What determines our health?

Dr. Bortz likes to explain it using the life of a car. “The life of a car depends on 4 elements: design, accidents, maintenance, and aging. If the car is a “lemon,” is involved in many accidents, or is poorly maintained, it will not have the chance to grow old. (1)” Our bodies work similarly. This is called the biological determinants of health.

What are biological determinants of health? For the purposes of simplification, biology is the study of the vital processes of life. For humans, that encompasses things we do that keep our body functioning correctly, or in contrast, what can deteriorate it faster. Internal factors such as how much or what we put in our body and how much exercise we do and don’t get, even factors outside our control like what genes we’ve inherited and external factors including bacteria and viruses, can significantly impact our health and quality of life. These are the biological factors that determine our health.

Some of these we can control. We can determine, to a certain point, our diet, whether we smoke or drink alcohol, and how much exercise we get. Other parts of our biology, paired with careful actions, can result in positive health outcomes. For example, someone with type 2 diabetes in their family history can reduce their risk of becoming diabetic through healthy regulation of their diet and exercise (2). There are biological determinants that are out of our control such as the deterioration of our body’s vital processes with age, but even as we age, how we treat our body can influence how fast our body ages and how resistant our body is to disease and harm.

This is where Well Fed is set up to make the most impact. We are focused on biology and behavior. We work in underserved communities where diet-related illness affects many people’s daily lives. The choices they make often determine their health outcomes. Some struggle to change bad habits and choose a healthy diet and as a result their diabetes or hypertension gets worse. Others will develop illnesses because they do not change their current lifestyle. However, we recognize the barriers they face which make choosing to cook and eat healthy difficult and sometimes out of reach.

Phinehas Adams / UNSPLASH

This brings us to the social determinants that drive health outcomes. These are the conditions in which a person is born, grows, lives, works, and ages that contribute to their health (3). The governmental policies, cultural values placed on health, your socioeconomic status— who you are in society as far as your income, occupation, education, ethnicity, and gender impact your health. Even psychological factors like if you have a healthy relational support network or have stressful living circumstances can all govern your ability to live and eat healthy.

There are organizations that hold an important role in working hard to influence policy and the conditions in which people live. Well Fed is in some of those conversations, but our expertise and where we can help the most is with the biological determinants that are causing poor health, hospitalizations, and death among under-represented communities in Arkansas.

We empower families to make healthy choices by providing them with consistent cooking and nutrition education. We’re giving them the tools so that they can construct a healthy lifestyle for themselves.

Each conversation about how to cook a particular vegetable and its related nutritional benefits is a step forward in real behavioral changes.

They see the importance and simplicity of cooking healthy. 1) We give them fresh fruits and vegetables so they can access it, because many of our participants have physical restrictions to healthy food access. They may live in a food desert (link), they could be disabled, or their transportation could be inconsistent. 2) Our participants can use the food we give to make the recipes they get from our education segment. 3) The healthy food we give them adds vital nutrients to what they already make!

The statistics in Arkansas are not good. In previous blogs we wrote about the devastating effects in the Natural State in regards to the obesity rates, rate of food insecurity among adults and children, and the risk of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. The social determinants need addressing, however, as Dr. Bortz explains (4),

it is evident that the biological factors are more proximate determinants than the socioeconomic contributors, which are upstream and ultimate in their role.

What goes into our bodies has the closest impact on our health outcomes! Although it may be a daunting task to impact behavior and biology in a way that heals people living in underserved communities in Arkansas, through the cooperation of our partners and our community, we can begin to change the future health of communities one person at a time.


Millions of Americans can’t afford to eat healthy food. They have no choice but to stretch their weekly paycheck by buying inexpensive, highly processed, nutritionally depleted foods for themselves and their families – increasing their risk of developing life-threatening diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Adding fresh fruits and vegetables to a meal is proven to provide the nutrition needed to help prevent and manage these diseases.

-“In 2016, approximately 52.9 Billion in healthcare costs were associated with food insecurity among American adults and children.”

 The excess total healthcare cost associated with food insecurity is $1,607 per food insecure adult in Arkansas.

**Feeding America:


-According to a UAMS study published in the journal of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which surveyed 357 food pantries representing 5 food banks across Arkansas, found only 18.5% of food pantries had written nutrition guidelines, and only 19.3% offered client choice distribution. (Christopher R. Long, PhD; Marie-Rachelle Narcisse, PhD; Brett Rowland, MA; Bonnie Faitak, MEd; Caitlin E. Caspi, ScD; Joel Gittelsohn, PhD; Pearl A. McElfish, PhD)

-Fresh fruits and vegetables were only offered consistently by less than 20% of food pantries.

 **(2212-2672/Copyright ª 2020 by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.)

-For every 1,000 calories in their FAH total purchases, food-insecure households acquire less total fruit, whole fruit, total protein, and seafood and plant protein compared to food-secure households.

-Food-insecure households have significantly higher probabilities of purchasing no fruit, no dairy, and no protein foods for FAH than food-secure households. Food-insecure households also have a higher probability of having a zero score for refined grains, meaning that they purchase more refined grains per 1,000 calories than is recommended by dietary guidance.

**USDA: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/93725/err-269_summary.pdf?v=1063.3

According to Feeding America’s Map The Meal Gap study updated in 2018, there are 521,490 food insecure adults in Arkansas. In addition, Arkansas is ranked 3rd worst in Child Food Insecurity at 23% of children considered food insecure. Countless families in rural areas are struggling to find consistent healthy food options. Many barriers such as poverty, location, and lack of nutrition education cause families to stay stuck in patterns of poor health and hunger.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

© 2021 – Well Fed. All rights reserved.