Skip to main content


Professor Gill Rowlands of Health Literacy UK explains why good numeracy is vital for managing your health

26 Apr 2016

Too many people struggle working out the numbers behind dietary information on food labels, according to a recent poll carried out by YouGov for National Numeracy. 

We delved further into the importance of good numeracy skills for staying healthy with Gill Rowlands, Professor of General Practice, Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University, and founder of Health Literacy Group UK.

Why is there a link between numeracy and managing your health well?

We need to be able to understand and manage numbers for many areas of health. We need these skills to stay healthy (such as knowing how to eat healthily, get the right exercise, have safe levels of alcohol drinking), prevent illness (such as understanding our own risk of diabetes or deciding whether cancer screening is right for us), and manage illness (such as knowing how and when to take our tablets). 

What sort of things do you need numbers for in relation to health and diet? 

Firstly we need to understand the importance of a healthy weight, and how weight relates to height (the Body Mass Index or BMI). Then we need to understand what types of foods should be in a healthy diet, and what amounts of different food types we should be eating for health. So we must be able to understand what is right for us and our families, and be able to use nutrition labels on foods to help us get the balance right. 

How does numeracy fit into overall ‘health literacy’? 

Health literacy is people’s knowledge and ability to obtain, understand and apply health information. Clearly numeracy is key because so much health information is in numbers. Without numeracy skills people will not be able to make sense of the information they are given.

How much difference can people make to their health by being confident with numbers? 

A large difference; by being confident with numbers people can take control of their health, make their own health decisions, reduce the risk of being ill, and, if they do get ill, increase their chances of recovery or of living healthily with a long-term illness. 

National Numeracy’s 2016 YouGov poll found that only one in four people could fully understand the sugar information in a nutrition label. Were you surprised by this result? 

No this reflects what I have found as a GP; many people struggle with the numeracy skills we all need for health. 

How much of an issue is all this for public health in this country?

This is important. We know from research that people with lower health literacy and numeracy skills die younger, feel less well, are more likely to develop a long-term condition such as diabetes or heart disease, and are more likely to find that any such condition impacts on their everyday lives. 

What would you like government, the health sector or industry to do differently to improve health literacy, including numeracy? 

Firstly we need more awareness of the issue and its importance – patients and the public need to be aware as well as health professionals and teachers. Secondly we need to build numeracy (and literacy) skills for health during school years but also through adult learning. Thirdly we need health professionals to be aware of the issue and take extra time to make sure they have explained health issues involving numbers (e.g. medications, decisions about whether to have a flu jab or take a cancer screening tests) well enough for patients to understand. We need the government to support all these things. You can find out more about the whole area of health literacy from the Health Literacy Group website.

What can people do to improve their own health literacy?

I think learning as a family can be fun – learning to buy and cook healthy food together means that people can learn really good numeracy skills as they gather and use ingredients. If you go to your GP or practice nurse and they start to talk using numbers, ask them to explain things clearly and don’t be afraid to say you don’t understand – they will be happy to spend time to make sure everything is clear. Finally think about adult learning classes locally – they can be a really good way to meet up with other people and learn new skills. Or try out the National Numeracy Challenge which is a really easy online way to check your numeracy skills and find out how to improve them. 

Three ways you use numeracy to manage your health 

1. Maintaining a healthy body weight 

The ability to interpret the sugar, salt or fat content on food labels and how these conribute to your daily intake is important for managing your health. Whether you’re counting calories, carbs or alcohol units, understanding the numbers is a key part of understanding what you’re consuming.  

2. Taking the right dose

If you are taking medicine or, for example, looking after a sick child, you will need to know the difference between a gram and a milligram, and calculate the timings for dosages.

3. Understanding the risks and benefits

You need to understand numbers and percentages to make the most of information and advice from your doctor. For example, you might want to weigh up the benefits and risks of having an operation, taking a new drug, going for cancer screening or having a flu jab- and all of that requires good number sense. 

Improving your maths

The National Numeracy Challenge is a free resource to help people across the UK develop their numeracy skills and feel more confident about handling numbers. Over 75,000 people have registered and 4 out of 5 people who take the Challenge Check-up twice have improved their maths. 

Take the National Numeracy Challenge

Visit Health Literacy UK