Category Archives: Dietary guidelines

Review: Anti-Diet

Anti-Diet

Christy Harrison Anti-Diet: Reclaim your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. Little, Brown Spark. 2019. Pp. 326. ISBN: 0316420352 (Hardback).

Janet Chrzan (University of Pennsylvania)

Intuitive Eating?? Really????

For the last few years, I’ve been reviewing popular American diets for an upcoming volume on fad diets. Diets are, as all are aware, extraordinarily popular in the United States, with roughly 50% of adults trying to lose weight at any given time period (according to the CDC) and approximately 30% actively ‘on a diet’, whatever that might mean. It’s clearly a national obsession, right up there with Flamin’ Hot Nacho Cheese Doritos and the Wing Bowl. This means, of course, that there is an endless and near-bottomless appetite for diet books, diet blogs, diet therapies, and diet gurus… and that a sure way to make money is to create a new diet (or something that looks like a new diet), become a diet blogger and lifestyle advocate, write a peppy easy-to-read volume about your diet’s wondrous efficacy, get interviewed by Oprah, Gwyneth, and Dr. Phil and make time to go shopping for your new yacht.

A rational understanding of nutrition, human biology, or even food composition is not necessary for any of those ‘make-me-a-millionaire’ diet gurus.

Occasionally a diet book comes along written by someone who has studied nutrition at a good school, one known for the quality of its programming and faculty. Unlike, for instance, the ever-popular online programs for ‘certified sports nutritionists’ provided by the Institute for Functional Medicine or the ‘Online Holistic Nutritionist Specialist’ degree offered by the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts… and other similar for-profit degree mills. The book in question, Anti-Diet: Reclaim your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, was written by Christy Harrison, who has experience in both food (she had been a writer for Gourmet Magazine) and nutrition, having completed the New York University’s RD/MPH dual degree (an excellent program to which this author has sent her own students for further training in public health nutrition). High hopes ensued for a rational, well-written and sensible book about the importance of forming habits promoting a balanced diet, with side notes on portion sizes and food frequencies for optimal dietary health. Alas.

The book is organized into two parts, the first being a description of what Harrison calls “diet culture” or “the Life Thief” and the second part designed to provide a personal and affirmation-based solution to the problem for those who have been victimized by diet culture. She defines diet culture as “a system of beliefs that equates thinness, muscularity, and particular body shapes with health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss and body reshaping as a means of attaining higher status; demonizes certain foods and food groups while elevating others; and oppresses people who don’t match its supposed picture of “health”” (Harrison, 2019: 7). At about this page the reader realizes that this isn’t a book about diets or food, it’s a self-help manual designed to make privileged dieters feel good about themselves by embracing and denouncing all the myriad ways they’ve been victimized by American culture.

Alas, there are no recipes or food plans. In fact, Harrison suggests that “no good scientific evidence exists that eating so-called ‘processed” (or “highly palatable”) food causes significant weight gain or poor health outcomes” (ibid: 48). She also maintains that getting rid of ‘disordered eating habits’ rather than modifying diet promotes health, although people with celiac might benefit from “making a few changes in how they eat” (ibid: 78; italics added). However, she also tells readers: “take diabetes, for example: diet culture makes people with this condition live in constant fear of carbohydrates, but these nutrients don’t need to be off limits at all – they just need to be understood. Yes, someone with diabetes might (italics added) have a blood-sugar spike from eating a carbs-only meal or snack – within their rights as an autonomous human being, if that’s what they want or need to do” (ibid: 231; italics added). While she then does explain (correctly) that including other macronutrients with carbs can blunt the rise of blood sugar, she also falsely claims that diabetics are told to avoid all starches due to a stigmatizing ‘diet culture’ that demonizes carbs. Of course this isn’t true; it’s virtually impossible to avoid carbs and any RD or medical doctor who treats diabetic patients will teach them to combine foods to ensure a diet that discourages insulin spikes. What these quotes demonstrate, instead, is Harrison’s primary rhetorical tool: she makes a misleading and dichotomizing statement-of-fact about a topic relating to food use or health and then asserts that the science is wrong and that ‘diet culture’ controls discourse and practice to victimize people (well, mostly women).

This strategy prevails throughout the volume – she describes a situation, makes a statement, provides a negation and takedown bolstered by carefully chosen (favorable and cherry-picked) references and a smattering of seemingly rational scientific evidence, and then presents a testimonial from either her own life, that of a patient, or of another ‘victim’ (usually another afflicted healer from the self-help industry) who reiterates the narrative trope of how diet culture constructed the problem. The problem is solved when the person stops doing what diet culture tells them to do, realizes their utter victimhood, and embraces a free expression of their inner, authentic self to forgo all food rules. Again and again she makes definitive, declarative and often misleading statements designed to support her agenda, such as “It simply is not evidence-based medicine to say that people “need to lose weight” for any health reasons, because we have no safe, sustainable method of producing weight loss” (ibid: 158; italics original to text). Clearly both ends of this sentence are untrue; some health problems do indeed benefit from weight reduction and we most certainly do know how to encourage healthy and safe weight loss.

This points out her problematic use of research materials and scientific studies to support her cause; too often she cites sources that don’t support her statements, occasionally cites a research report without providing a full citation or cites a magazine story as scientific evidence. Or she will cite a source or two about a topic, asserting that one or two published outliers demonstrate that most science is wrong – but ignoring the vast pile of research that better defines the scientific consensus. Her evisceration of how quantiles are used in scientific and epidemiologic studies is a good example (see pages 232-235). Another example is her citation-free negation of nutrition science research in a general statement that “animal studies cannot be extrapolated to humans; at best, they can alert researchers to areas for further scientific study on humans. These human studies, in turn, must be repeated multiple times with large groups of people in well-designed experiments (that is, in randomized, controlled, trials)” (ibid: 235). From this statement of misinformation (misinformed because many aspects of human nutrition can indeed be understood by study of analogous systems in appropriate animal models) she then explains that since most nutrition studies don’t follow that best-case-scenario research model they are not capable of providing accurate information, although her analysis is muddled through with chatty inconsistencies. She also assumes that the worst case scenario is the standard situation; for instance, that suggestions to ‘limit sugar’, are actually ‘eliminate sugar entirely and never eat it again’, which allows her to construct straw-man arguments against the scientific research about that topic. But what can we expect from someone who writes, apparently with absolute certainly and seriousness: “after the fall of Rome, the notion of body fat as a symptom to be cured went mostly underground for a long time” (ibid: 20). These are common rhetorical tactics used by diet gurus; many diet books are positively larded with declamations and citations that seem to incontrovertibly support the diet… yet digging into the cited reports reveals that the author often misstated the outcomes or findings of the studies.

The signs of a fad diet are well known; The Pennington Biomedical Research Group provides a concise description (see file:///C:/Users/Janet%20Chrzan/Dropbox%20(Blue%20Horseradish)/JAC/Documents/Articles%20and%20Books/PNS_Fad_Diets.pdf). From my research and reading, fad diet creators nearly always assert that their diet – and only their diet – works. First they tell you how your extra weight is hurting you, assert that health is only possible if you follow their diet and that it will prevent most known diseases, then they provide ample, often bogus information that proves that other diets and nutritionists in general are wrong, all designed to support their diet, to discredit other diets and most everyday food use as well. Only they have the answer, and it’s to follow what they say for success, perfect health, social acceptance and life-long well-being.

And perhaps not surprisingly, albeit amusingly, Harrison follows this structure almost perfectly. The chapters each focus on a topic within food culture, define how “diet culture” has corrupted the enjoyment of food, negates modern science about the diet, and then provides a testimonial about how someone overcame the cultural programming about the topic to get healthy and to accept herself. In the first section, chapter one provides a history of “diet culture”; chapter two a discussion of how modern diets cause you to be a victim of the wellness movement; chapter three a review of how performing diets become a victimizing, all-consuming time sink; chapter four a review of how performing diets become a victimizing, all-consuming money sink; chapter five is about how diet culture creates victims of all of us and destroys well-being and self-assurance by fat-shaming and stigma; and chapter six chronicles how being a victim of diet culture makes you unhappy. In the second section, chapter seven counsels the reader on how to set boundaries and escape from victimhood, and chapter eight asserts that we are all born intuitive eaters but diet culture causes us to be victims and to lose our capacity to know what we want to eat. Chapter nine tackles the tendency to label foods as good or bad as problematic, arguing that all food rules (even cultural ones) are inherently bad and cause victimization and that we should just eat what we want all the time. Chapter ten introduces the Healthy at Any Size movement, describes how being large is to be victimized, and is largely drawn from its website and educational materials; and chapter eleven tells the reader to find a community of other victims to join in victimhood to denounce people who might say something negative about fatness and being a victim and that dismantling diet culture will create social justice and equal rights for everyone. Do you perceive a pattern? I do.

I’d like to diagram her hypothesis and analysis. She has identified diet culture as the problem for almost all food-related issues, and links diet culture to a patriarchal, racist agenda designed to keep all women disempowered: “diet culture, it’s very much a system of oppression, with its roots in racist, sexist beliefs about food and bodies” (ibid: 49) and “in the twentieth century, being fat was seen as a sign of lower evolutionary status, as was failing or refusing to adhere to binary gender roles and beauty standards” (ibid: 33). The volume is littered with comments that dietary restraint of any sort is linked to victimization, and especially for people who belong to groups that have experienced profound discrimination in the United States such as people of color and members of the LBGQT community. But Harrison seems to equate the discrimination and inequalities experienced by those groups – real, life-altering and profoundly inhibiting – as similar and perhaps even equivalent to the projected discrimination experienced by those who follow diet culture. Not, I need to point out, only those who are indeed large bodied and who have experienced the real and deleterious inequalities resulting from fat phobia and stigma, but all people (women) who have ever gone on a diet or bought into the thin body ideal or been a food activist (chapter two) or simply wanted to fit into last year’s jeans again. In effect, any attempt to regulate what you eat makes you a victim of the most repressive forms of discrimination and socially engineered denigration, and equates the sufferings of women like the author – young, white, well-educated, middle class, entitled and able to follow their own form of ‘diet bliss’ – as equal to and equally deleterious as the discrimination suffered by truly oppressed peoples. To be a victim of diet culture is analogous to being a victim of white supremacist misogyny and racism, apparently (see pages 112 and 264 for examples of how she links and equalizes these forms of oppression). Really? It’s astonishing to think that victimology might allow privileged white women to decide they have it as bad as historically oppressed peoples.

If we take a metaphorical step back to examine the rhetoric and construction of this volume, the how and the why of her idée fixe becomes clear. The first part of this is tied to how and where she started her enquiry, the second to how she conducted her research, and the third to the original structure and purpose of the writing.

Her original interest in writing about diets were her own experiences with dieting, her perceptions and anxieties about body size, and her experience of disordered eating, as she makes clear in the introduction. She provides readers with story after story of her own problems; she even tells us that she entered the RD/MPH program at NYU because of diet culture, because she was so disordered in her eating and thinking that she thought it would solve the problem (see pages 113, 127, 131 etc.). She even includes her student loan debt as part of the ‘steals your money’ hypothesis of chapter four (ibid: 127). In effect, she’s decided she’s a victim because she had the opportunity to go to a very good school to study the topic she had a psychological problem about… But it’s clear from her writing that Harrison’s problem was deeply psychological rather than food-related; she had an eating disorder, or at least could have been diagnosed with disordered eating. She makes this clear in story after story about herself, but especially on pages 9, 10, 57 and 111 (in which she describes her recovery with the help of a good therapist). But she then states “I was finally able to recover from diet culture by giving up all forms of dieting” (ibid: 10) indicating that she considered her problem to be societal (diet culture) rather than psychological. She has projected the psychological onto culture, and determined that culture is ill, not the self. The problems are external, not internal or part of the self. She also implies that anyone who diets at all has an eating disorder… because of diet culture.

She then uses this projection of causality to frame her research. Almost all her testimonials and stories are from people who are either archetypical “afflicted healers” who have recovered from eating disorders or patients with eating disorders. In effect, she has globalized the psychological problem of an eating disorder into a rationale against all food rules and dietary behavior and assumed that anyone who alters their diet or is interested in wellness is a victim of a societal ill. Furthermore, those who are part of the food movement: “(Michael) Pollan, (Marion) Nestle, and their ilk” (ibid: 61; parentheses and first names added) are complicit in the oppression and victimization of others. Indeed, not only are they peddling a dangerous diet culture, they are racist oppressors: “The food movement also implies that if you eat what it deems to be the right foods, you’ll avoid “obesity” and end up thin, just like Pollan, Nestle, and other (overwhelmingly white) food-activist leaders. In this way the food-activist movement upholds white culture’s preference for thinness by equating it with the picture of health, and defines “real food” as the type preferred by white elites” (ibid: 61). Again and again she provides narratives of how someone with an eating disorder overcame it to eat whatever they wanted to get healthy, conflating a psychological problem with a cultural process and identifying the cause of the problem as outside the bodies and selves – and minds – of those with eating disorders. And of course, that’s true to some extent; without a cultural preference for thin bodies many eating disorders might not exist. But that does not allow one to declare that all people who change their food habits or are involved in any kind of healthy eating movement are victims of diet culture or psychologically damaged; nor that they are racist. Indeed, while food justice isn’t baked into every food activism process (yet), many people involved in the food movement are active precisely in order to promote food justice within communities of color… and food justice often means food-secure access to foods she labels white and elite such as fruit, vegetables, and other whole foods that people from disadvantaged communities want just as much as the privileged. Not everyone who works in food is an oppressor, nor is everyone who changes their diet a victim. But that she clearly thinks that everyone should read her book is obvious: “in our society at this moment in history, it’s basically impossible not to fall into diet culture’s clutches at some point. As you’ll see later chapters, however, it is possible to extricate yourself and move beyond it” (ibid: 73). Yep, everyone is a victim and everyone has an eating disorder constructed, created and controlled by “diet culture”. Which only she can fix.

Third, the logical inconsistencies of the interlocking arguments have been amplified by the rhetorical structure of her original writings. Christy Harrison was, and is, a food blogger… and the chapters reveal that genesis. The chapters are organized thematically but do seem to be constructed of re-worked previous posts, with internal subcategories that tackle individualized issues. They have then been grouped into themes and strung together. OK, not a crime – and not the first time a blogger has written a book using previous material. Furthermore, the strongly declarative statements (often false or misleading) are precisely the kind of attention-getting rants that generate eyeballs on a blog page and for a podcast. She employs – and frequently, often two or three times per paragraph – the use of quotations around a word or concept to indicate the she deems it false. She is clearly telling her readers exactly what’s wrong with the world that she’s trying to fix – and its “food activism”, “real food”, “better choices” and “watch what they eat” among many other concepts. It’s a clear tell (my italics!) of intent and a furthering of the strategy to criticize everyone else while arguing for her solutions. Her need to denounce any idea that she deems a part of diet culture causes her to attack scientific protocols and principles as faulty. She refutes how research is done and often misstates or misunderstands research outcomes. For instance, her discussion about how weight stigma causes allostatic stress ignores other stress-causing variables that play a role in an overall stress response. Instead she assumed that the health outcomes associated with allostatic loads are due entirely to weight stigma, rather than to stressors known to cause weight gain, such as lack of sleep and high anxiety (ibid: 137-140). It’s an effective strategy if your only analytical tool is to bash every nail with a hammer, but not always an effective explanation of scientific findings. What passes easily in a blog post might not make it past a peer reviewer, and much of this volume would not stand up to any kind of careful review.

Ah, solutions. And here is the big problem. There aren’t really any beyond self-acceptance and a description of the Health at Every Size platform. In fact, by chapter two I was wondering if the food industry had paid her to write this book, after reading statements such as: “the movement’s anti-food industry sentiment has distracted people from the fact that, by and large, food activists have built their case for changing the food system on a foundation of weight stigma, which directly benefits the weight-loss industry and harms everyday people, particularly those in larger bodies.” She then attacks Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle before declaring “The food movement considers itself socially progressive yet it unintentionally upholds an outmoded, racist, oppressive view of bodies by accepting and repeating “obesity epidemic” rhetoric and blaming particular foods for supposedly making people fat” (Ibid: 59). She repeatedly tells people to eat whatever they want, including cravings such as cupcakes, brownies and other high-sugar foods, even if diabetic (see pages 225-236). Indeed, her discussions about the need for individualized autonomy and choice-making uphold a rigidly neoliberal, consumption-oriented construction of the self (see page 172). Another tactic is to mislead readers about what a word really means or how it is used to dismiss practices she equates with diet culture: “speaking of chemicals, they get a bad rap under the Wellness Diet, but your body is 100 percent chemicals… and you’d die without them” (ibid: 104). Besides, “arguments about how the food industry or the ‘standard American diet’ is purportedly creating an ‘obesity epidemic’ are intertwined with racist and classist beliefs… and that’s to say nothing of the fact that pointing fingers at the food industry conveniently deflects attention from diet culture, which deserves a lot more scrutiny than it gets in the food-activist movement” (ibid: 55). So the solution is to accept yourself and eat twinkies, because anyone arguing for systemic change in the food system is racist and attacking the wrong causes, and the food industry is not the reason anyone has gained weight. I suspect this might make people feel even more disempowered than before.

Harrison is right about many issues, of course. She ably describes why and how diets cause rebound weight gain and is correct that many diet protocols are biased in favor of the thin, white, young body. And far too many of the foods deemed healthy at any given point in time are indeed precisely the foods that the elite and privileged prefer and eat (hello Keto and Paleodiet, I’m talking about you). She’s right to link 20th century racism to notions of the ideal body – and does indeed credit Helen Zoe Veit’s outstanding research for making that clear (Veit, 2013: Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century. The University of North Carolina Press. Many of the messages about body acceptance and accepting the self are indeed valuable, and important to the creation of a healthy diet and relationship with food. She’s absolutely right to encourage people to explore the HAES protocols and to learn how to eat a diet framed by internal controls. The problem is that she has fallen into the trap of almost all diet gurus: she relies on attacking others’ work and concepts as a rhetorical strategy to improve the appeal of her own ideas. Rather than explore the content and context of her construct ‘diet culture’, she assumes that everyone in food advocacy is complicit in oppression and denounces their work as part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. And perhaps because, fundamentally, she has no solution – her constructed creation ‘diet culture’ is too large and too structurally messy and embedded to be changed through the efforts of the neoliberal individual. And because she refuses to honor the work of others, she is incapable of participating within a mutually respectful community of change. Or maybe she really was paid by the food industry to write this book.

Why did I bother writing about this book? Well, because I think it’s very typical of the diet/nutrition writing that’s available to the general public and which explains so much of the confusion about dietary advice. Overall, this book misleads the reader about diet and health, and especially about science and behavior. Yet to the average, untrained-in-biology reader this book might sound knowing and wise, because there are lots of nutrition science words, references, and positive testimonials. Of course, that the average reader might not realize that the references aren’t always appropriate is a problem and supports the need for a good reviewer and a good editor. But this is not a peer-reviewed volume and thus those services weren’t provided (ahem, see cited sentence about Rome above…). One of the central questions that I have been asking myself as I write about diet fads is how to effectively convey good information to a public yearning for explanations without being condescending or dismissive of the ‘alternate facts’ that comprise too much of the understanding of nutrition processes. I’m still not sure how to do that but I know that all of us in food do need to speak up when we encounter truly bad advice and information. Almost every conversation I have with people about their diets makes clear how much they seek accurate advice and too often can’t rely on what they read and hear.

For alternative readings that cover these topics in far more accurate and positive (and do-able) ways, I suggest Finally Full, Finally Slim by Lisa R. Young, and How Not to Diet by Michael Greger. Both provide excellent protocols for establishing personal habits that guarantee healthy weight maintenance – at any size. For on-target discussions of oppression, fat stigma, and feminism, I suggest the fiercely intelligent and brilliantly funny Lindy West, particularly The Witches are Coming and Shrill; her columns for the Guardian and the New York Times are also superbly well-written and cogent: http://www.lindywest.net/columns.

 

Veit, Helen Zoe (2013) Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under anthropology, Dietary guidelines, nutrition, obesity

Review: The Other Milk

The Other Milk

Jia-Chen Fu. The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China. University of Washington Press. Seattle, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-295-74403-2. 276 pp.

Juliet Tempest (SOAS, University of London)

Ambivalent Modernities

An historian by training, Jia-Chen Fu retells the story of soy in China—an account otherwise taken for granted. We may have been correct that soybeans enjoy a long presence in the region, but their forms and meanings in Chinese diet(s) have evolved over time. Fortified soybean milk became popular only following the efforts of Republican-era scientists, social workers, and producers, whom Fu calls “nutrition activists.” More than a readily digestible history of soybean milk, or doujiang—itself indigestible prior to the advent of modern processing technology—The Other Milk presents a case study on the drink as a modern, science- and nation-building enterprise for these nutrition activists. In so doing, it seeks, and, I would say, succeeds, to problematize narratives of Western science’s inevitable naturalization in China by revealing the context-specific development of Chinese nutrition science amidst dialogue with research abroad.

Propagation of soybean milk during the 1930s and 1940s as “traditional, modern, and scientific” epitomized this process, according to Fu (2018, 5). Nutrition activists employed scientific discourse to mobilize the materiality of such protein-rich “milk” to strengthen the population, as dairy was perceived to have done for the West. The author concludes that Chinese activists constructed the problem of population health in such a way so as to necessitate soybean milk as the solution, particularly in refugee aid projects. Yet the question of whether this discourse actually reached consumer-citizens on the ground, especially outside a Shanghai milieu, remains open. The Other Milk is thus a well-constructed and written resource on the biopolitics of soy and the epistemology of nutrition science for this period in China, even if it does not capture how the target demographic actually interpreted soybean milk messaging.

Bookended by an introduction and epilogue, each of the seven chapters builds towards Fu’s thesis—of an aspirational Chinese modernity as expressed in a homegrown nutrition science supporting consumption of soybean milk—by addressing an assumption underpinning it. Following the introduction, the book begins with anticipating the question of soy’s modern status through depicting the transformation of the Chinese soybean industry (Chapter 1). Such a development occurred in the wake of Western and Japanese economic growth and military defeats around the turn of the twentieth century, which Fu highlights to establish the latter’s national imperative to modernize, a project that manifested in both the development of domestic nutrition research and its application to “improving” individual bodies, thus the nation (Chapter 2). As for why diet became a site for intervention, Fu addresses this assumption just as nutrition activists did before: through portraying Chinese dietaries as the alleged key to unleashing the nation’s economic potential (Chapter 3). In extant diets, it was the lack of protein, especially animal-based, that compromised Chinese nutrition and bodies, which justified supplementation with “milk” (Chapter 4). Although preferable, cow’s milk was cost-prohibitive if not totally inaccessible for most, inspiring an alternative in fortified soybean milk marketed as a hybrid Western-Eastern product: a scientifically modernized version of traditional soy (Chapter 5).

The arguments of every chapter scaffold onto those preceding, with the exception of the fifth. There, Fu breaks away from discussing how nutrition activists conceived their object to analyze soybean milk advertisements. Fu explains this decision in terms of evaluating how producers theorized “the social” as a site of modernity negotiated for the public (111), but the link to nutrition activists discussed elsewhere remains tenuous. While soybean milk advertisers functioned as discourse-makers in addition to—and occasionally in cooperation with—nutrition researchers and aid workers, they did not operate in the same way or in the same field as these activists: in blending Daoist approaches to health with concerns about protein and hygienic manufacturing, the former treated biomedicine and Chinese medicine as “apparently complementary knowledge systems” (114) for the public; whereas the latter sought an epistemological break that would parallel and precipitate a new era of Chinese prowess that deprecated without vitiating earlier knowledge claims within the scientific community. Granted that such ambivalence characterized Chinese nutrition science in general and soybean milk advertisements in particular, this chapter implicitly shifts the scholarly gaze onto the public, about whose receptions to these communications and the products they advertised we can say little given the methodology.

I have interpreted this attitude among nutrition activists as characterizing their concept of “modernity,” this crux of Fu’s argument that is only ever defined indirectly, in relation to a “traditional,” “Chinese” identity. The equation of “traditional” and “Chinese” is in fact one assumption that Fu does not tackle head on, although the language nutrition activists employed substantiates this position. Similarly, Chinese society’s juxtaposition against the “modern” West remains implicit throughout The Other Milk, through references to “a polyphonic, hybrid modernity” that “combin[ed] elements from China and the West,” for example (110). On the other hand, that nutrition activists did not reject China’s capacity to become modern emerges from their choice of a soy product as the nation’s deliverance. Such complexity in their relationship to a modern, Chinese identity features within the tales of nutrition activists Fu tells. The lack of explicit definition of modernity, then, follows from Fu’s awareness of its situation in a unique context—that it is, indeed, a relative term. At risk of failing in the task that Fu smartly avoided, I take modernity in The Other Milk to mean nutrition activists’ aspiration for a stronger China in the future, modeled on the West’s and Japan’s perceived progress and so involving struggles with if and how to incorporate cultural aspects that have served as a source of national identity.

Compelling narratives about the work of individual nutrition activists culminate in a two-chapter discussion of Fu’s primary case: the efforts of the Refugee Children’s Committee to distribute soybean milk during the Japanese Occupation, and in the process promote a healthier, modern citizenry. Addressing why and how this aid organization focused on distributing soybean milk (Chapter 6) allows Fu to assert that technocrats like Nellie Lee and Hou Xiangchuan “situated nutrition as the crucial site for the dissemination of modern knowledge and values” (174; Chapter 7). Fu’s tone alternates between sympathy for and criticism of their sincere but misguided motivations, given the prevalence of hunger. The modern construction of hunger in Republican China paralleled developments abroad, where it also became quantified, hence solvable, in biomedical terms. The state’s historical obligation to feed the populace in times of famine (yangmin) consequently transformed into a responsibility to nourish, which nutrition activists like the medical researcher Wu Xian understood as seeking the “optimum” rather than the “minimum” (66). Consistent with denigration of Chinese diets for their “inadequacy” and backhanded compliments around their “potential to change” (179), that nutritional interventions were seen to offer the greatest return for economic growth continues as a mainstay in international development today (e.g. IFPRI 2016).

Such observations on cultivating modern subjects through self-governance recall the ever-growing literature on biopolitics in China. To wit, the anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh (2010) has documented the intersection between individual fitness and population governance in state policies. Although Greenhalgh’s research principally concerns socialist and post-socialist China, the construction of inferior diets as a “social problem” (Fu 2018, 60) and the promotion of soybean milk as the scientific and obligatory solution prefigures more recent debates—that also sometimes err disturbingly on eugenicist rhetoric—about raising low “quality,” or “suzhi,” at both the individual and population levels.

Although Fu does not reference Greenhalgh, nor for that matter Foucault, the author makes excellent use of anthropological literature on colonial medicine and diets in China (to which Fu thanks Judith Farquhar for having introduced her). In particular, interrogation of the epistemological privilege granted “biomedical” nutrition science in China “owes much to the work of medical anthropologists Arthur Kleinman and Margaret Lock” (220). Along with the historian Michael Worboys, these scholars demonstrated conflicting views on the comparability of foreign bodies and diets in medical research during the colonial era and since. Chinese nutrition activists seem to have variously and selectively appropriated these ideas for the purpose of recasting food, like soybean milk, as a mechanical input for nutrition. Fu can therefore argue that this ambivalence permitted the ontological flexibility requisite to domestication and exploitation of the science, to build a modern nation of citizens nourished scientifically with Chinese foods. Although undeniably a historical monograph, The Other Milk thus offers an example of how interdisciplinary research can tell a more complete version of the story.

Much still remains untold, however, particularly for this anthropologist-reviewer. For one, it is unclear to what extent Fu’s findings may be generalized outside of urban, coastal China, given how most Republican-era nutrition activists appear to have operated within Shanghai and its environs. To the extent these places served as a locus for building such scientific worlds, the focus of Fu’s study, the distinction may be moot. For another, Fu’s treatment of materiality alongside discourse, while admirable, nevertheless glosses over the sensory qualities of soy—and milk—and their effects on bodies, the site of these modernist aspirations and interventions. The book argues for soybean milk’s promotion as evidence of a uniquely Chinese nutrition science and identity, so then what of Chinese tastes? Fu alludes only once to taste as a criterion “distinct from economic supply and demand” (143), which must have played a role in soybean milk’s dissemination, particularly in comparison with cow’s milk; if it did not, that is something worth noting.

These critiques revolve around a desire for more information about how the public consumed soybean milk and ideas about it. As such, they are perhaps unfair, because addressing them was not Fu’s intention and would have required different kinds of data. Fu acknowledges this shortcoming: “it is not clear that nutrition science in early twentieth-century China achieved this same kind ideological hegemony over the ways in which Chinese people thought about food and eating [sic]” (9). The Other Milk is therefore an excellent resource for research on soy, vegetarianism, and scientist modernity in China, even if its authoritative scope should potentially be confined to urban areas of Republican China and to answering questions other than (albeit relevant to) the meanings consumers assigned to soybean milk. Notwithstanding these significant contributions, the methodological choices directing attention to elites’ discourse-creation in this process of nation-building—Fu’s subject—imply a specific directionality for the construction of modern Chinese identities, namely as top-down and not bottom-up.

The nutrition activists who constitute The Other Milk’s explicit concern are, indeed, often elites. They operate outside formal state organs, whose involvement in rice distribution makes the grain a more appropriate lens through which to study the state, Fu suggests (16; see also Ohnuki-Tierney [1993] on Japan). It is perhaps due to the state’s more tangential role with respect to soy that Fu does not adopt a Foucauldian framework to analyze—what I understand to be—the biopolitics of soybean milk; because Fu does not invoke the concept of biopolitics, it is therefore implicit to the author’s analysis as well as the activities of nutrition activists to which it refers. In this way, Fu’s treatment of soybean milk offers a novel approach to understanding how the discourse and resources of non-governmental organizations nonetheless intersected with state power: nutrition activists deployed scientific research, especially social surveys and controlled experiments, as the arbiter of truth to summon legitimacy for their interventions, which would improve the nation’s (nutritional) status.

It bears noting that these nutrition activists did engage with the state, however, just as Fu’s argument dialogues with the historian Mark Swislocki’s (2011) work on “nutritional governmentality” in late Imperial and Republican China. In fact, Fu situates the book as a response to a question that Swislocki posed elsewhere: “How did nutrition become ‘an authoritative idiom in China for understanding the relationship between food and health?’” (Swislocki 2001, in Fu 2018, 9). In providing “one answer,” Fu sets out to complement Swislocki’s excellent work on the Chinese state’s interest in improving nutrition. Though it begs the question of whether the choice to downplay the state’s role in The Other Milk is justified when Swislocki argues the opposite, albeit not for a specific food like soy. Besides researchers’ personal ambitions—to produce advanced science as much as belong to a modern nation (Fu 2018, 11)—it would seem important to consider the state’s influence on the development of a nutrition science, given the mutual imbrication of the public and private spheres in China that both Fu and Swislocki acknowledge.

Rather than nutrition science per se, The Other Milk is a book about ambivalent modernity. Not only were China’s nutrition activists navigating between two poles of scientific authority in the East and West, their strategies betray resistance to abandoning everything traditional for something modern. Fu suggests that “expediency” motivated the unique blend of considerations in the research, production, marketing, and distribution of soybean milk (181). To the extent we subscribe to Fu’s argument, which I do, it is important to reiterate that activists advocated soybean milk for nutrition not as a humanitarian end, but as a means of building up the nation, to vie with the West and Japan for “wealth and power” (121). Unfortunately, this discourse around China competing with the rest of the world possesses great salience today—at least from where I write in the US.

Lest we fall blindly into this ideological trap, let us end by paying attention to other constructive lessons from The Other Milk. The power of soybean milk—in terms of its nutritional discourse and materiality—testify to a long history of globalized trade in goods and ideas. Many of Republican China’s nutrition activists had trained in the US (Chapter 2). An increasing interest in consuming milk occurred almost simultaneously in the US and China; the Chinese did not always drink soybean milk, nor did Americans regularly consume cow’s milk before the twentieth century (Chapter 4). Just as “milk” had to become a part of modern diets, so too did soy emerge as a global commodity when China started exporting it to fill a 1908-1909 shortage of vegetable oils in Europe and North America (Chapter 1). Now China’s relationship to soy, once a famine food, has changed again, as production has shifted overseas and the population has grown wealthier, consuming more meat, at times imported from the US (Epilogue). We may thus all benefit from reflecting again on how ideas and practices we take for granted are historicized products of local and global trajectories. And given that industrialized foods are now pitted against “traditional” foodways in the opposite direction to what Republican-era Chinese nutrition activists imagined, perhaps we, too, ought to approach modernity with a bit more ambivalence.

Works Cited

Greenhalgh, Susan. 2010. Cultivating Global Citizens: Population in the Rise of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). 2016. Global Nutrition Report 2016: From Promise to Impact: Ending Malnutrition by 2030. Washington: IFPRI.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 1993. Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Swislocki, Mark. 2011. “Nutritional Governmenality: Food and he Politics of Health in Late Imperial and Republican China.” Radical History Review 110 (Spring 2011): 9-35. DOI: 10.1215/01636545-2010-024

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, China, Dietary guidelines, nutrition, public health

Messer’s Postings

Ellen Messer, Ph.D.
(Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, Boston, MA)

What’s new in food and nutrition research and policy in the world, the US, and sustainability?

1. State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) 2019. This report, released in July 2019 (as contrasted with its usual October, World Food Day release date) gives governments and everyone much to ponder. Key findings indicate hunger numbers are increasing, not declining. Prevalence of undernourishment, the least exacting measure, affects close to one billion people; experience of food insecurity (not sure where your next meal is coming from) affects more than a billion more, including those suffering hunger in industrialized countries. This year’s themes, in addition to addressing conflict, climate change, and economic inequalities as causes of hunger, considered paths to recovery from economic downturn and the challenges of structural inequalities that lead to hunger. You can download the report, its executive summary, or in its entirety, here.  For a quick overview (especially to start off discussions in classes or presentations), access FAO’s (3+ minute) video, summarizing major numbers and themes here.

2. 2020 US Dietary Guidelines for All Americans (DGA) face substantial political challenges in the run-up to the Committee’s report. The White House administration has banned any discussion/recommendations regarding environmental impact (sustainable food systems), health impacts of red meat or processed meats, or ultra-processed foods and sodium. It has also disallowed reference to any research studies published before 2000, and reference to any non-USDA scientific studies (!). You can read the Washington Post summary here. My authoritative Tufts colleagues add: Nutrition scientists and policy makers need to change the term “plant-based” “foods or meat substitutes” to minimally processed plant foods, as many of the ultra-processed foods are plant-based!

3. Meanwhile, what’s new on the planetary health and diet front are new microbial “meat” substitute start-up’s (carbon footprints of these highly processed food operations still need to be scrutinized), and a report that the Swiss-based corporate giant Nestlé, along with other major food industry conglomerates, is taking steps to make its supply chains carbon-neutral by 2030. You can read more about the Nestlé’s initiative here or on the company’s website and more about the hype surrounding soil microbes and their potential to feed the world here.

4. Synthesizing discussion of all three above themes, Frank B. Hu (Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health) published a “Viewpoint” perspective in JAMA, pointing out the mixed environmental and health impacts of more or less processed plant-based foods that are meant to substitute for meat. An easily accessible interview on the major takeaways is here.

Reminder: SAFN members recently received an announcement from David Beriss regarding a new on-line journal, Nature Food, which is actively soliciting brief commentaries, opinion pieces, literature reviews, and original research articles from food professionals across many disciplines, including anthropology.  The editor-in-chief, Anne Mullen, intends to include anthropological materials of interest to a wider range of scientists in every issue.   You can find at more on the website.

Related Reminder from SAFN President David Beriss: If you are not a SAFN member and wish to receive our occasional updates via email, be sure to join the association, which you can do here. Once you are a member, you can receive communications via the new American Anthropological Association Communities communications system, here.

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Filed under anthropology, Dietary guidelines, food security, nutrition, sustainability