Category Archives: nutrition

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

Thesis Review and Interview: Deorukhe Women’s Agency in the Making of Bodies, Cuisine, and Culture in Maharashtra, India

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Waterlogged rice fields of rural Konkan, Maharashtra

Please note: As Associate Editor, I am soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf (kg38@soas.ac.uk).

Anna He Purnabramha: Deorukhe Women’s Agency in the Making of Bodies, Cuisine, and Culture in Maharashtra, India. Gauri Anilkumar Pitale. Ph.D. Thesis in Anthropology, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. 2017.

Elizabeth Finnis (University of Guelph, Canada)

Gauri A. Pitale’s doctoral work takes a biocultural approach to understanding potential health implications of dietary changes in the context of liberalization, globalization, and national change in India. Pitale worked with 66 pairs of Deorukhe Brahmin mothers and daughters living in rural and urban Maharashtra; mothers were all born and raised in a pre-liberalization India, with daughters born and raised in the post-liberalization era. Drawing on qualitative and anthropometric data, Pitale looks at intergenerational differences, asking how changing dietary practices are implicated in notions of the self and identity. In doing so, she considers Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases (CNCDs), including obesity, hypertension and diabetes, testing a range of hypotheses, and exploring foodscapes in terms of the lived experiences of her participants and issues of purity, perceptions of health, and the body. What particularly stands out in her ethnographic approach is the placing of anthropometric measurements within larger contexts of notions of identity and caste purity. Her anthropometric results and discussions are bracketed by chapters that draw on her qualitative data and her fieldwork reflections, including considerations of changing perceptions of food/cooking and implications for relationships and exchange, and the ways that processes of urbanization can affect food habits and preferences.

There is much to think about in Pitale’s work, including reflections on the expected and unexpected in fieldwork, urbanization and the presence of CNCDs, and changes in food habits that have both dietary and moral implications for participants. Pitale’s dissertation allows readers to reflect on questions that are of importance both in contemporary India and that also address broader issues of identity, belonging, food, and place. These include: How do notions of purity and kinship intersect with cooking rules, not just in terms of food eaten, but also with regards to how the space of a traditional hearth is used, and what it symbolizes? How does convenience get complicated by notions of authenticity and taste? What do kitchen implements and home-grown or home-prepared spices mean in terms of family history and tradition? How do space and place affect the types of food that daughters want to cook, and their relative cooking skills? How are community ties reinforced through shared cooking activities? And, How are anxieties around maintaining caste identities and/or engaging with cosmopolitan identities, intersecting with food?

These questions are considered through different cultural and data lenses. For example, Pitale provides a discussion of cooking and kitchens, including the symbolic, sacred value of the traditional chul (a u-shaped clay stove, coated with a double-layer of plaster made from cow dung and water, and red earth) and its associated rules for use, versus the comparatively rule-free and convenient gas stove. Through her discussion, Pitale demonstrates some of everyday complexities of balancing multiple factors in food preparation and consumption.

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Chul in a rural Deorukhe kitchen

Another example includes considerations of some of the differences when it comes to cooking skills among rural and urban daughters. While young rural women are expected to develop cooking skills and learn how to manage a kitchen at a young age, in part related to the need for an alternative cook when mothers are practicing menstrual seclusion, urban daughters are less likely to have significant skills in the kitchen. When urban daughters do cook, it is more likely non-traditional recipes, or “fun” foods like pizza and cakes. This also connects to the chul, with urban daughters preferring to use gas stoves, and in some cases, being unable to effectively cook on a chul at all.

With her anthropometric data, Pitale also considers how nutritional transitions are implicated in CNCDs; she hypothesises clear differences between her rural and urban participants, with a generational effect. Her findings indicate that, for example, based on weight circumference, almost all mothers (rural and urban) would be considered obese (86.4%), but rural daughters were more likely to be underweight than urban daughters. One of Pitale’s surprising findings was in terms of blood pressure; contrary to expectations, rural mothers had higher blood pressure than urban mothers. This finding questions underlying assumptions that traditional diets and activity levels can help to minimise high blood pressure, while urbanized diets and lifestyles can increase it.

Overall, this is a rich dissertation that uses a range of data collection methods to create a complicated picture of the ways that food intersects with notions of the self, and health. Who should read this dissertation? This work is of interest to anyone who is thinking about how food practices shape and are shaped by everyday rural or urban life, and the implications that this has for how people think about their identities and health, and to those looking for an example of the complexities of economic liberalization, rural-urban differences, and caste in contemporary India. The thesis will also be of interest to researchers thinking about how to approach biocultural research projects, and how to integrate anthropometric and qualitative data within ethnography. As I read the dissertation, a number of questions emerged for me around some of the public elements of Pitale’s work, her findings, and her fieldwork experiences, and my review concludes with an interview addressing some of these questions.

Elizabeth Finnis (EF): Hi, Gauri! I enjoyed reading your doctoral work, and thank you for letting the SAFN blog host this review and an interview with you about your work and research experiences. My first question is something that I often ask people during (or immediately after!) a defense: Who would you hope would read your work, outside of anthropological audiences?

Gauri A. Pitale (GAP): I would love for everyone to read my dissertation because I certainly find it rather riveting a topic! Jokes apart, I think my study would be illuminating for those governmental agencies that are working on addressing problems related to the double-burden of overnutrition and undernutrition that India is facing. As a country, we [Indians] are leading in the numbers of deaths that are connected to CNCDs. The increasing encroachment of multi-national corporations that sell fast foods and ones that may result in the disappearance of small kirana (grocery) shops is concerning. India is in a precarious position. The coming two to three decades will vitally change the food consumption and the food distribution system of the entire country. Yes, certainly we should address the biological causes that make Indians susceptible to CNCDs. But if the government does not increase awareness among people, there is high likelihood that India will face the same challenges that western nations like the United States of America faced starting the 1970s and 1980s. On the one hand, we notice that an increasing number of urban Indians are becoming more and more conscious of how to maintain their health by going to dieticians and/or the gym. On the other hand, large swathes of Indians are turning to Ayurveda and traditional remedies to counter these same problems. It is my hope that this dissertation highlights how variable the answers can be within one country. Other than government agencies, I would also love for my research to be read by the Deorukhe community. I hope they find it useful. I have already given them a copy of my dissertation and am currently waiting to hear back from them.

EF: So, then what do you hope a non-anthropologist will really understand about your research?

GAP: When I explained my dissertation research focus to my Indian friends and family, their responses were rather interesting. Some found the research topic to be rather bland, while others thought that the information I was gathering was so commonplace that they couldn’t comprehend why it needed to be researched at all. Non-Indian friends and family also found the subject pale in comparison to studying the more “exotic” aspects of Indian culture and society. I soon realized that people take food for granted. While Indians have a medicinal system entrenched in food, westerners are usually more focused on the nutritional aspects of food. That said, food and eating has been and will always remain a social as well as an emotional experience. Though the relationship between food consumption and health seems like a straightforward one, my study demonstrates that making any sort of policy decisions to control or even address the rising appearance of Chronic Non-Communicable Disorders (CNCDs) will remain hopelessly abstruse if we disregard the historical, ecological, political, as well as the economic aspects of why people eat the way they do. Certainly, there are a multitude of factors involved but a deep understanding of the issue on both a local and global level is valid and necessary. To actually affect change, we need to start making lay people aware of this simple fact: food and the body are not things that can be studied bereft of their social surroundings.

EF: Your answer makes me think a bit about how the participants in your research thought about blood pressure and mental/emotional stress. You argue that for your participants, particularly the rural ones, high blood pressure is considered related to mental and emotional stress, and is therefore seen as a temporary condition. Are there bigger implications of this understanding of high blood pressure?

GAP: This is one of the aspects of my study that surprised me immensely. I hypothesized that high blood pressure would be more common among urban participants in comparison to rural participants. This is in line with published research doing a comparative analysis between urban and rural populations. Therefore, the results of my data collection coupled with my experiences in the field were atypical and confusing. My rural interlocutors did view high blood pressure to be the result of a temporary condition. These people were also going to rural medical practitioners. I wish I had the time to visit these doctors to ascertain whether they had actually told the interlocutors that this was a temporary condition. The main thing that concerned me was, if hypertension was being viewed as a temporary health issue occurring as a result of stress, then treating it accordingly might result in more health complications in the long run.

More importantly, the implications of this perspective are two-fold. One, if and when a complication does occur in the future when these women are older, the problem would be treated as something to be expected because high blood pressure is seen as a chronic health condition that plagues old people. Two, most studies expect hypertension to be a condition that is commonly noted among urban people; rural people suffering from the same condition might not even be considered to be at risk. This could mean that they will never be tested or treated until a complication arises. A large part of rural India bears the burden of undernutrition. The Deorukhes are comparatively well-off thanks to their caste status. Therefore, we must also acknowledge this occurrence of hypertension among this rural population might not be something that applies to people of all castes in rural India. For all of these reasons, it is highly likely that these conditions will not be noticed anytime soon. This concerns and worries me, especially in connection to their long-term health and their quality of life.

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Roadside fruit seller, Mumbai

EF: I found it interesting to read your brief discussion of the guilt felt by some mothers if they don’t – or can’t – cook for their children. Do you think similar feelings can play out in different kinds of households, both within and outside of India? What makes it different (or not) for your participants?

GAP: What a fantastic question! I am happy you asked me this. The guilt felt by mothers is certainly not unique to Indian culture. There are many cultures in which I assume women experience guilt that corresponds with the diet and health of their family members. I assume because having grown up in India, I experience this guilt and deal with it on a day-to-day basis. I believe the difference lies in how my participants experience this within the social dynamics of Indian society. I am certain women in other cultures also have certain expectations that are thrust upon them. In the case of my interlocutors however, there is the added layer of caste-related food prescriptions. The expectation that Deorukhe Brahmin women in general have to safeguard household purity is a larger part of this guilt. Women have to learn to prepare traditional foods so that they can pass on traditions to daughters and daughters-in-law. And while every culture has a family recipe that can be learned from elders in the family, how integral these recipes are to one’s communal identity changes from one culture to another.

I can give you an example of something that occurred in my own family. I happened to visit the family of a friend who was of a lower caste. They invited me for dinner one evening. I remember that her mom had made some type of shellfish that I had never tried before. I found it to be rather delicious. Upon returning home my grandmother promptly asked me what had been served for dinner. I told her about this unheard-of shellfish and asked my mother why she never cooked this fish at home. My grandmother immediately replied, “We don’t buy that kind of fish. Those are eaten by lower caste people.” Until that moment, I had no idea that my friend belonged to a different caste group at all. But my grandmother deemed it necessary to educate me about the differences in upper and lower caste fish consumption at the age of 10, lest I make any such demands again. These conversations are ubiquitous in rural and urban Indian households. The guilt felt at crossing these boundaries is an additional aspect of the guilt felt by my interlocutors. It may not be unique to India because I am sure this kind of gate-keeping also occurs in other world cultures. The difference may be in the amount of social consequences that result from women’s failure to control the food that enters their households in general and into the bodies of their family members in particular.

EF: I also appreciated the methodological and positionality reflections that you incorporate into your dissertation. For example, you write about how, when collecting data, you were positioned as the ‘expert’, but that when you entered kitchens, you became understood as lacking in experience and basic knowledge. What did this kind of ‘flip’ in perceptions of expertise teach you about doing ethnographic research?

GAP: The first lesson that I learned when I went into the field was that people tell you what they think you want to hear. This is a lesson we all learn as anthropologists, and that’s why we spend so much time getting comfortable with our interlocutors and participating in their lives as we observe them. My fieldwork was incredibly fruitful. Despite that, my appearance as an Indian woman who lived in America and had come back to India to study the Deorukhes put me in an interesting position. In one part of the introduction chapter of my dissertation, I discuss my position and the social capital that I had which resulted in the Deorukhes allowing me into their homes. However, my familiarity, while at times a disadvantage, was also an advantage in this case. I want to be clear that I’m not implying that non-native anthropologists may not have used this strategy to make their interlocutors comfortable. But the fact remains that the conversations about food and food habits that I had with Deorukhe mothers lacked the depth that I found satisfying. I also realized that talking in their living rooms about food often resulted in the whole family, and in some case entire neighborhoods, monitoring the interaction. The resultant conversation was stunted and awkward, something I noticed as I started transcribing my field recordings. I was spending more time asking questions and directing conversations rather than getting answers.

The request to enter their kitchens to watch them cook was put forth for two main reasons. One, not everyone is allowed entry into each other’s household kitchens. The audience had to leave or wait outside in the living room, allowing me and the woman to be alone or at least have fewer people around. This was something I noticed in one household during my first visit. I went into the kitchen to return a cup of coffee to the lady of the house. She told me where to place the dirty cup in the kitchen and promptly started amending some of her answers. Her husband and some men in the village were sitting outside in the living room hearing us talk. In the kitchen, she started complaining about how difficult it is to manage the food habits of her husband. It became obvious that the kitchen was her domain and the one place she felt safe to voice her opinions without being overheard, especially by the men since they rarely ventured into this space. The second reason was to reduce the awkwardness of sitting and talking without having anything to do. Most of my interlocutors were happy to show off their kitchens to me. No matter how small or large, how fancy or simple, these were their spaces, arranged to their liking, and spaces that they controlled. Also, if they kept busy, I assumed our discussions would be more fruitful. The dynamic shift was an unexpected discovery. As soon as I noticed it, I immediately began to ponder on the manner in which their assumption of my inexperience in matters related to running a household relaxed them and made them want to impart knowledge to me.

Present day anthropology has come a long way from what we thought about our interlocutors to how we perceive them today. They are the experts from whom we learn. I went into the field with that point of view. And while I fully intended to carry out semi-structured interviews, I also had a long list of questions prepared so that I could collect data on food acquisition patterns. I still have this data. I have piles of data about how much rice, flour, lentils, masalas, etc. each household buys. I also have data about the money each household spends on food and other food acquisition pattern information. While I meticulously collected this data in the field, I also realized that for me, the deep ethnographic data that started to shine and capture my attention was what I encountered in the kitchens as I watched women cook. These discussions and interactions were far more rewarding and indicative of what they wanted to tell me. I chose to focus on their voices rather than only focus on my initial study objectives. What this taught me is that it is important to go into the field with specific objectives. However, it is equally important to allow our interlocutors to tell us what they deem to be important for us to know. In between these two points is where the actual fun and research lies!

EF: In focusing on the health of women, did you ever get participants wondering why you weren’t also considering the health of men? If yes, in what kinds of ways did you respond to these queries?

GAP: The Deorukhe community did initially assume that my research was about the entire household. I would have very much liked to have focused on entire households because the data gathered would have been richer, especially ethnographically speaking. There were, however, several restrictions. For one, my study was self-funded, which meant I could only spend a certain amount of time in the field. For statistical reasons, I needed to recruit at least 35 families from both rural and urban settings. I also needed to visit each family at least three times to note seasonal changes in their diet as well as their anthropometric measurements. All of this really restricted my ability to spend more time with each family. The more people I needed to meet, the more difficult it was to find time to meet with them. The men of the household, especially rural men, often controlled my access to their wives and daughters in the initial stages of my study. Though I was requesting the women to be a part of my study, in many rural families the men closely monitored the initial conversations. In one household in particular, the women and her daughters never uttered a single word in reply until the husband said, “Alright, go ahead and add us to your list of participants.”

Restricting the study to women and girls was something that I had already discussed with my advisors and committee members. This is because ease of access to my interlocutors and the ability to hold conversations in both public and private was important to me. There is a high amount of gender segregation in India. As a woman, it was easier for me to get access to and speak with young girls and women. Conversations with men were not impossible but these took place more in urban settings rather than rural settings. As for your question about whether participants wondered about why my research did not consider men, they did not. That is because I told them when I was recruiting that I was focusing on women because they were the gastronomic gate-keepers and the ones in charge of managing the household’s food consumption patterns. This made sense to my interlocutors. From their perspective, I was not only measuring their and their daughters’ bodies, but at the same time I was discussing with them the health of their entire family. My interlocutors often told me how they managed to ensure their sons, husbands, or fathers-in-law stayed healthy. This was vital to their discussions about the various challenges that they face when trying to keep their families healthy, a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Food court of a mall, Mumbai

EF: Your picture of changing food habits among your participant households is both rich, and, as you indicate yourself, patchy in some ways. What’s next for you, in terms of research?

GAP: This is a wonderful question! I loved every minute of my fieldwork and found interacting with the Deorukhe community in general to be a very rewarding experience. As a doctoral candidate who went into the field for her first long-term fieldwork, I experienced a lot of anxiety when things did not go as planned. The lack of both time and money was on the forefront of my mind. This meant that as much as possible, I collected every piece of information that I could. Along the way, I also collected large swathes of data about factors that I had not even considered to be influential to my research results. This is a large reason for why my research results are rich and at the same time provide a patchy picture. I think that is the strength of ethnographic fieldwork. I struggled to make sense of the enormous amount of information that I gathered during my fieldwork after I returned to America. After much contemplation and several discussions with my advisors and doctoral committee members, it became clear that the only way I could write this dissertation, for me, was by focusing on things that my interlocutors spoke about the most. Those are the things I have written about. I am happy with the way my dissertation has turned out, but it honestly only speaks about 30% of the information that I have gathered during my fieldwork.

Going forward I will publish chapters of my dissertation. Someday soon, I would also like to return to the field with funding so that I can fill in the gaps that currently exist, while also noting the changes that have taken place since 2014. And while I want to continue working with the Deorukhe community, I would also like to add another caste group, preferably people who are meat-eaters. This might allow for a richer and better comparative analysis. In an India that is experiencing large-scale dietary changes, I would like to see how the idea of purity and caste identities continues to play out. That would enable us, as food anthropologists, to really study the communal tension that underlies the study of food and culture in modern day India.

EF: Thank you, Gauri, for your responses, and for your contributions to the SAFN blog!

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Filed under anthropology, book reviews, cooking, cuisine, culture, diabetes, food and health, gender, India, nutrition, obesity

Healthy Eating Research Grants

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sponsors a program called Healthy Eating Research through which they support research on healthy eating among children. The program recently released a call for proposals for rather substantial grants, which we quote below. This seems like a great opportunity for anthropologists who do research in related areas. Note that they will hold a webinar for interested applicants to describe the program and the grant application process on June 6, which is next week. If anyone from SAFN gets a grant, we would like to read about it here!

From the CFP web site:

Healthy Eating Research has released its 2018 Call for Proposals (CFP). This CFP is for two types of awards aimed at providing advocates, decision-makers, and policymakers with evidence to promote the health and well-being of children through nutritious foods and beverages.

The two types of funding opportunities included in this CFP are:

  • Round 11 small-scale grants (up to $200,000 and 18 months)
  • Round 11 large-scale grants (up to $500,000 and 24 months)

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is focused on policy, systems, and environmental change (PSE) strategies that support parents’ and caregivers’ ability to provide environments that nurture and foster children’s physical, socioemotional, and cognitive health and well-being. In the area of food and nutrition, RWJF is particularly interested in PSE strategies that impact families, early care environments, schools, and communities at a population-level. Research studies must focus on PSE approaches with strong potential to improve children’s physical, socioemotional, and/or cognitive health and well-being through nutritious foods and beverages. Proposals will need to make clear connections between the study’s PSE strategies of interest and specific indicators of child health and well-being.

All studies must have the potential to impact groups at highest risk for poor health and well-being, and nutrition and weight-related health disparities. We are especially interested in studies focused on black or African American, Latino(a) or Hispanic, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian American, and native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander populations; and children living in lower-income rural and urban communities, with the aim of promoting equity. Target age groups are infants, children, and adolescents (ages 0 to 18) and their families.

Click here to download the CFP for more information on eligibility and selection criteria and descriptions of the types of studies that could be funded.

HEALTHY EATING RESEARCH ROUND 11 GRANTS

Approximately $2.6 million will be awarded through HER Round 11 grants. The anticipated allocation of funds is as follows:

  • Approximately $1.6 million will be awarded as small-scale grants, resulting in the funding of up to 8 small research grants through this solicitation. Each grant will award up to $200,000 for up to 18 months.
  • Approximately $1 million will be awarded as large-scale grants, resulting in the funding of 2 large-scale grants through this solicitation. Each grant will award up to $500,000 for up to 24 months.

How to Apply

All applications for this solicitation must be submitted via the RWJF online system. Visit www.rwjf.org/cfp/her11 and use the “Apply Online” link.

There are two phases in the application process:
Stage 1: Concept Paper
Stage 2: Full Proposal (for invited applicants only)

Applicant Webinar

A webinar for interested applicants will be held on Wednesday, June 6, 2018, from 3:00-4:00 p.m. ET. The purpose of the applicant webinar is to describe the Healthy Eating Research program, explain the scope of the CFP, review the application and review processes, and give you a chance to ask questions about this funding opportunity.

Registration is required to participate in this webinar. Please register at: https://cc.readytalk.com/r/pikqk3gpn57y&eom

Key Dates and Deadlines

June 6, 2018 (3 p.m. ET): Optional applicant webinar.
Registration is required: https://cc.readytalk.com/r/pikqk3gpn57y&eom

July 18, 2018 (3 p.m. ET): Concept papers for small- and large-scale grants are due in the online system. Concept papers submitted after July 18, 2018 (3 p.m. ET) will not be reviewed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Download answers to Frequently Asked Questions for this CFP. If you have additional questions about this funding opportunity, please contact the HER national program office at healthyeating@duke.edu or 1-800-578-8636.

 

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What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, March 12, 2018

David Beriss

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

It was only a matter of time before the question of sexual misconduct in restaurants intersected with the issue of tipping. Catrin Einhorn and Rachel Abrams investigate the often fraught relationship in this excellent article in the New York Times. The article includes useful videos. Is it time to end the degrading custom of tipping and just pay people properly?

Every social issue intersects with restaurants, as we have noted before. Here in New Orleans, chef Tunde Wey, working with Anjali Prasertong, a graduate student in Public Health at Tulane University, created an experiment designed to raise awareness of the wealth gap between white people and people of color in the United States. For a normally $12 lunch, people perceived as white were asked to pay $30, while everyone else was offered the regular price. Customers could choose to pay the higher price or not and everyone was interviewed about the experiment. Maria Godoy wrote about the whole thing on the NPR’s The Salt blog.

Have you been to the Spam festival in Isleton, California? This festival commemorates the miraculous survival of Spam cans after the town flooded in 1996. Read about the festival and listen to the Bite podcast, from Mother Jones, here. The latest episode includes additional stories about Tunde Wey’s experiment with food prices (see above) and about a member of Congress with an organic farm and a restaurant.

It is disturbing that Wey needs to remind us of the impact the racial wealth division has on Americans in 2018. This is, in fact, not a new story and we should have learned its lessons long ago. For a reminder of when Americans learned about this in an earlier era (even then, probably not for the first time), listen to this podcast, from the Southern Foodways Alliance program Gravy. Voting rights, along with public health and access to food in the American South in the early 1960s, examined by Sarah Reynolds, retells a story that still needs to be told. Use this in your classes. (The podcast coincides with the republication of the book Still Hungry in America, which you should take a look at too.)

From hunger to plenty: American fast food is notoriously stuffed with enormous amounts of cheese. Could this cheese tsunami be a result of a conspiracy, the work of the “Illuminati” of the dairy world? Writing for Mother Jones, Tom Philpott (who, to be fair, took the Illuminati idea from Bloomberg), says yes. He traces the cheese tide to overproduction and government policy to persuade you to eat more cheese. There is a disturbing cameo from President Trump too.

President Trump’s administration is working on rolling back the regulations put in place to prevent another oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Why is this about food? Because the Gulf of Mexico is where quite a lot of our seafood comes from and because many of the people who work in the oil industry also work in the fishing industry. As the article notes, the regulations were “written in human blood.” What is the price we will inevitably pay for rolling them back? Eric Lipton looks into this in this article from the New York Times.

What is the role of a seed library in Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation? Vivien Sansour, who founded the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, explains the local and global implications of this kind of activism in an interview with Joshua Leifer, on the +972 Magazine blog.

While we are in the neighborhood, this article by Rafram Chaddad weighs in on the debates about Israeli food by calling attention to the relationship between Jews and the foods of the Arab countries where many of them lived (and some still live). You have probably already heard the debates around hummus, but where does shakshuka take us? What would happen, Chaddad asks, if we recognized the complexities of the real histories of migration and nationalism that surface through food debates? Share this with your students next time you teach about cultural appropriation, ethnicity, or nationalism.

Forget John Le Carré novels. If you want espionage, read this article by Jessica Sidman from the Washingtonian. She reveals some of the antics that go on behind the scenes as restaurants strive to identify and please critics. Also, Le Diplomate, in D.C., is indeed very French.

Did you know that the organic food advocate Jerome Rodale died on the Dick Cavett show, at the age of 74, moments after declaring that he would live to 100? What impact does the untimely death of longevity advocates have on their credibility? Readers of this blog will probably not be surprised to learn that many people do not understand science very well. For instance, nutrition research that provides results for populations is often misunderstood as advice for individuals. For useful perspective, read this article by Pagan Kennedy, from the New York Times. And remember, we make no claims concerning how long you will live if you read this blog.

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Tenure Track Assistant Professor of Public Health Nutrition

We just received this job announcement that will certainly be of interest to SAFN members!

The Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont seeks a faculty member in the area of public health nutrition. This 9-month tenure-track position involves undergraduate/graduate teaching and research related to public health nutrition and the translation of such research into policy, programs and practices.  Effective date of the position is 9/1/2018.

The successful candidate will be expected to teach at all levels, advise undergraduate and graduate master’s and doctoral students, and provide mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students, along with professional contributions and service.  Potential teaching topics may include but are not limited to nutrition, public health nutrition, community nutrition, global health and population health. This individual will support the undergraduate and graduate curriculum in dietetics, nutrition, food sciences and food systems.

In addition, the successful candidate will be expected to undertake an active program of research in topics related to public health nutrition that leads to publication and/or presentation in peer-reviewed scholarly outlets and to seek extramural funding for that research.

The candidate must have an earned doctoral degree (e.g., Ph.D., Dr.P.H., Sc.D.) in a relevant field at time of appointment with expertise in one or more of the following: nutrition and health disparities, nutrition and food security, nutrition and global health, nutrition and food choice, nutrition and sustainability, community nutrition, nutrition and population health. Teaching experience and a scholarly track record is preferred.  Applications will be reviewed beginning November 1, 2017. 

There are numerous opportunities to work within a trans-disciplinary context with others in the greater University community.  Depending on the candidate’s area of expertise, there are opportunities for collaborative research activities with researchers affiliated with Food Systems, the Institute for the Environment, the College of Medicine and other departments in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Applicants should apply by submitting an on-line application through the UVM employment website (https://www.uvmjobs.com/postings/26917).  Applications should include the following 1) cover letter including a statement of research aims and teaching philosophy 2) curriculum vitae, and 3) list of three professional references.

The University is especially interested in candidates who can demonstrate a commitment to diversity through their research, teaching and/or service.  Applicants are requested to include in their cover letter information about how they will further this goal.  The University of Vermont is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity employer.  The Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences is committed to increasing faculty diversity and welcomes applications from women and underrepresented ethnic, racial and cultural groups and from people with disabilities. 

Founded in 1791, UVM has been called one of the “public ivies” and is consistently ranked as one of the top public universities in the United States. Interested candidates are encouraged to visit the UVM-NFS website: www.uvm.edu/nfs and the city of Burlington, Vermont website: http://www.burlingtonvt.gov/.

 

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