Tag Archives: health

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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Filed under anthropology, CFP, food and health, grants, nutrition

EM Thoughts and Readings!

Ellen Messer

March 17–St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday during Lent, when Roman Catholics ordinarily forego meat. But this year the Boston-based Roman Catholic Cardinal O’Malley gave everyone permission to eat meat–i.e., corned beef–so they could celebrate their heritage.

The unconsummated union of Unilever and Kraft-Heinz continues to generate commentary. Jack Nelson, in the Financial Times, praised Unilever’s “responsible capitalism” as contrasted with Kraft Heinz’s “red blooded cost cutters” who cut jobs and divisions with abandon, with no concern for affected workers and places. Will Hutton argues that “companies with a declared purpose perform better” (a reference to responsible capitalism as opposed to unbridled profits). Share holders, according to various sources, are of mixed opinions. Depends who you read and trust.

Avian flu has struck Tennessee farms that supply Tyson Foods. All birds within a 6 mile radius of the observed outbreak have been culled. Stay tuned. This is not the end of the story. Ask: besides the birds, who suffers the losses? You can track these and other avian flu pandemics here.

Score spuds for “The Martian.” The International Potato Center (CIP) one of the consortium of international agricultural research centers, this one based in Lima, Peru, has imitated “The Martian” (i.e., the movie’s) potato experiment on desolate Mars — this time for real in the Peruvian desert. The experiment reports promising results! The CIP experiment can also be looked at the opposite way: using Peruvian conditions to shape understandings of what might be grown on Mars under what modified conditions.

The Philippines, annoyed at the highest levels with US policy, has struck a trade deal to send agricultural (among other) products to China. Officially warming to the Chinese as a partner, the government is also scorning the US.

In keeping with new US administration policy on “America First” high level US officials push to raise US scrutiny of China food deals in the US (e.g., Chinese investments that result in takeover of US food companies).

Allegations assert that (a now retired) EPA official colluded with Monsanto to hide disease risks of glyphosate (Roundup herbicide) exposure.  Succinct summary of the issues can be accessed here. Almost simultaneously, EU official chemical assessment office gave glyphosate a pass on cancer risk, although the findings remain contentious, and no one questions findings that Roundup harms aquatic life. (See news summary here.)

What do I think? Company lobbyists are always trying to influence regulations and findings. Results of experiments designed to judge carcinogenicity, and impacts on ordinary people who use Roundup, depend on terms of exposure to the chemical and individual vulnerability.  As a result, different studies reach different conclusions with opposite safety-policy implications.  Why are these issues surfacing now?  Glyphosate’s safety evaluation is up for renewal in the US and Europe (and the world).

On another topic, leading chocolate companies have pledged to advance platforms and guidelines for sustainability; more precisely, to prevent deforestation.  Some of these companies in the past have posted confusing standards.  Note that the efforts are addressed at high levels (states, corporations) and while they voice concerns about small farmers, don’t formally integrate them into the proposed decision making for new normative practices.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food and health, nutrition

Review: The Psychology of Overeating

Psych of overeating cover

Cargill, Kima. 2015. The Psychology of Overeating. Food and the Culture of Consumerism. London/New York: Bloomsbury Academic (216 pp).

Julie Starr
Hamilton College

In The Psychology of Overeating Kima Cargill, a practicing clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, argues that overeating is a by-product of the American propensity to overconsume. Situating her account of unhealthy eating habits within the ‘culture of consumption’—our endless desire to have or purchase ‘more’—Cargill illustrates how the accumulation of empty calories parallels that of unnecessary goods. This book is Cargill’s (personal) attempt to convince her patients, students, and a general audience that overconsumption is toxic to our bodies and psyches and, far from fulfilling our lives, induces the modern malaise of the ‘empty self.’

The book’s main protagonist is Cargill’s patient, Allison, who is obese and unhappy. Allison feels isolated and wants to lose weight in order to improve her social/dating life but is caught in an endless loop of seeking out new products to facilitate her efforts. From expensive juicers and nutritional supplements, to super foods and gym memberships, Allison’s attempts at weight loss are mitigated by her purchases and are short lived; they are interspersed with binge eating episodes and breakdowns. Cargill’s efforts to convince Allison of the futility of her approach are ineffective, in part giving rise to Cargill’s desire to write the book.

The book consists of eleven short chapters, beginning with an introduction in which we come to know Allison and learn of the main problem Cargill hopes to tackle in the book: the powerful forces of consumerism that lead most of us to overeat. She then turns her attention to a general discussion of consumerism: it’s rise in the U.S. (Chapter 2) and the psychological distress it causes (Chapter 3) before tackling consumerism and food (Chapter 4) and the way the food industry is tricking/manipulating its consumers into eating more (Chapter 5). For Cargill, the culprit of our malaise is sugar, the overconsumption of which she links to its historical rise as a commodity (Chapter 6) and our biological propensity to enjoy it, a fact that the food industry preys upon to create ‘hyperpalatable’ and addictive foods (Chapter 7).

These first seven chapters set the stage for the most interesting (and most anthropological) part of the book, in which Cargill gives an account of the newly designated psychological disorders of Binge-Eating and Hoarding (Chapter 8). In support of her main thesis, both ‘overconsumption’ disorders emerged at the same time, in 2013 with the publication of the updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM), the handbook of all disorders penned by the American Psychiatric Association. In her discussion of the manual, Cargill draws our attention to the way that treating Binge-Eating and Hoarding as psychological disorders blames the “bounded individual, decontextualized from surrounding cultural and economic forces” (114). She recognizes the power the DSM has in establishing psychological norms, which shapes the experience, diagnoses, and treatment of psychological disorders. But a Foucaultian she is not; after recognizing issues with taxonomy, she is quick to defend the ‘purity’ of the scientific method (128) and views the adulteration of it as stemming from the pursuit of profit.

The fact that overeating is now considered a psychological disorder sets the stage for her discussion of how Big Food and Big Pharm are working together to create and then medicate consumer-driven problems (Chapter 9), which the FDA has little power to monitor or quell (Chapter 10). In an all too familiar tale, then, Cargill presents another case in which consumer culture aids corporations in seeking profit at the cost of consumer health. She concludes the book with some tips on how to consume less and more wisely, in order to regain control of our eating and consumption habits and reverse “the course of Empty Selfhood” (154).

The strength of the book is no doubt the way that Cargill seeks to situate psychological disorders and the problem of overeating within the larger cultural context of consumption, a necessary step to understanding the dilemmas individuals face in our society. But in some ways the book fails to deliver on its promise, mostly due to a lack of theoretical framework (e.g. practice) through which to integrate psychology, biological and ‘unconscious’ drives, positionality, the pressures of consumer life, and the marketing tricks and ploys used to sell products. As such, the chapters move between historical accounts, personal anecdotes, popular culture, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, social theory, personal opinions, and Allison’s (and other quickly introduced and then forgotten patients and acquaintances’) perils. This ad hoc approach undermines analytical cohesion as anecdotes work against and often contradict previously established arguments.

For example, in addition to education and policy change, one remedy Cargill suggests for fighting the forces of consumerism is for individuals to use their ‘common sense.’ She writes: “With the notable exception of children, no matter how little education someone has, no matter how little nutritional literacy one has, there is still common sense. None of us is forced to eat junk food and it doesn’t take a college degree or even a high school diploma to know that an apple is healthier than a donut” (59). Setting aside the way she ignores how common sense is itself a product of power relations, Cargill’s book is full of examples where she is the only one with such ‘common sense.’ Indeed, we are presented example upon example where Cargill is ‘surprised’ and ‘puzzled’ by her (educated!) friends, students, and patients, and their lack of knowledge about simple nutrition. According to Cargill, this is due mostly to the way our psychological defenses allow us to “conveniently deny” (73) food’s unhealthy properties.

Although she seeks to integrate psychology with cultural context, Cargill inevitably returns to the individual to account for why we overconsume. This is most apparent in her conclusion, where she offers advice on how to consume less and more wisely. But by focusing on consumption practices, in an odd way Cargill aligns with the very system she seeks to critique: agency comes through what we choose to buy (or not buy) rather than our activity in social and political life.

As a whole, this book is best suited for those struggling to control their desire to overeat and looking for inspiration to cut back on consumption. Some should consider supplementation to better control their appetite check the user review when in doubt about a product and do your research! In an academic setting, Chapter 8 would make a nice addition to an undergraduate course on Medical Anthropology; Chapters 7, 9, and 10 could be useful on a syllabus for an undergraduate course on food and health.

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Good Foods and Foods Good for Health: Hunger and Obesity in Samoa

Kitchen counter with (from left to right) large pot with rice, sugar, teapot, and a bowl with boiled bananas with coconut cream (fa'i fa'alifu). Photo by Jessica Hardin.

Kitchen counter with (from left to right) large pot with rice, sugar, teapot, and a bowl with boiled bananas with coconut cream (fa’i fa’alifu). Photo by Jessica Hardin.

Jessica Hardin
Brandeis University

After a cup of sugary tea, John, a Samoan physician, explained to me that the major cause of metabolic disorders in Samoa is the lack of “access to a lifestyle where you can pick your own food.” He immediately offered himself as an example; “My own battle is with food, because we are family oriented and I find that I am healthiest when I am overseas working.” In other words, John found himself “pining for healthy foods” because when eating with his family he had to eat what was available. John felt he was “healthier” when he was traveling because he could choose his own foods, which were “foods good for” health. Others I interviewed would often bring up craving “good foods,” that is fatty, salty, and sugary foods. One diabetes patient, Iona, explained his difficulty with changing his diet: “I can see the piece of pork lying there, and the fried chicken leg. Well, I crave it. It is tempting you, even when I am given food cooked with vegetables. That’s good because it helps with my diabetes. It is best for me.” These vegetable options were good for health but were not the good foods (meaai lelei) Iona craved. Both John and Iona felt unsatisfied and hungry even though they had access to food; they also both struggled with their weight and controlling their diabetes.

***

Obesity research in Samoa tends to obscure the experiences of people like John and Iona, that is the experience of hunger and craving in a environment known for imported food dependence and obesity – Samoa. Anthropologists are increasingly calling for bringing obesity and hunger research together as “contingent circumstance[s] of inequality” (Pike 2014). Obesity research in Samoa has documented why obesity and related metabolic disorders have increased so rapidly. This research tends to focus on the culture of eating, feasting, and access to imported foods. However, the other side of food dependence is a story of craving, hunger, and desire, which needs equal attention. The lack of attention to the experience of hunger in obesity research reflects the drive in obesity research ‘to do something’ about obesity. The “war on fat” is waged domestically and globally and the rhetoric of epidemics reinforces the idea that all fat is unhealthy, that excess weight is a disease, and stigmatizing weight and eating is an acceptable, and even desirable, way to address said epidemic. As a result, the medicalization and moralization of fat can obscure the co-presence of the abundance of imported, fatty-salty foods and (the experience or fear of) hunger.

In other words, while Samoa is dependent on imported, highly processed foods, and these foods have become incorporated into food sharing and food values, not everyone across Samoa has equal access to those foods. Fear of hunger and desire for satiety encourages many Samoans to eat good foods, when they are available, even when these same foods are not considered good for health.

***

Family meals: Chicken with cucumber and white rice. Photo by Jessica Hardin.

Family meals: Chicken with cucumber and white rice. Photo by Jessica Hardin.

Many of the diabetes patients I interviewed understood they needed to eat differently than the rest of their family, but by eating differently they felt different––hungry or left wanting––even if they had plenty of food to eat. Manu, in his sixties who visits the diabetes clinic every month (indicating that he is not in control of his diabetes) said: “everything I like is not allowed. But if you want to live you have to exercise and eat, well not eat, because your life is in trouble. Sometimes it’s hard so I just eat.” When I asked Manu to speak more about why he “just eats” it became apparent that Manu struggled because he felt there was no food for him to eat, “I eat what [my family] gives me.” Another diabetes patient iterated this: “whatever foods I get that’s it, if they give me pork I eat it all.” For Manu, not only were the things he liked off limits but also in his household there were no alternatives. For alternatives foods to be available, he would have had to request different foods or preparations styles, which may have required the family to spend resources differently. Manu did not cook and did not earn cash and so despite being an elder in his family, who presumably could make demands to change household consumption, he refrained. Just as Iona desired chicken legs, many of my interlocutors experienced deprivation when changing their eating habits. “It’s the kind of thing where you love eating salty food so it’s difficult to change,” explained a nurse in a district hospital. She laughingly said, “this hunger, this appetite continues,” even after eating.

 Lea, a woman in her late forties, lived alone with her son. Instead of insisting that her son work the plantation, which would be a reasonable

Family meals: Instant noodles (saimini) with tinned corned beef (pisupo). Photo by Jessica Hardin.

Family meals: Instant noodles (saimini) with tinned corned beef (pisupo). Photo by Jessica Hardin.

response given that would be the family’s only access to cash (from the sale of crops) and starchy foods, Lea insisted her son stay in school. This meant Lea tended to the plantation. She said sometimes “there is nothing, I don’t know where to find food, maybe in the ocean sometimes. Sometimes I only boil a bunch of bananas for the whole day and night.” Only bananas is an idiom of hunger because it suggests that meals are incomplete. Starches alone without good food does not constitute what Samoans would consider a “meal.” The incompleteness leaves the person feeling hungry, despite access to some food. Another woman, I interviewed noted that sometimes her household has “only taro” to eat. She said, “it’s better to eat even when it’s bad food.”

***

This desire, or hunger for complete meals or good food, may encourage some to eat good foods when they are available, even if they are “bad” for health. These decisions reflect social and economic constraints, but satiety, desire, craving, and hunger for good foods also influences food choices. Epidemiological research has richly documented this “natural experiment” but in documenting these factors and features of global change, the experience of those suffering from cash-poverty and disease are often omitted. Inequalities generate hunger and craving, even when there is food available.

Jessica Hardin is a PhD Candidate at Brandeis University and incoming Assistant Professor at Pacific University. She is the co-editor of the volume Reconstructing Obesity: The Meaning of Measures, the Measure of Meanings . This post is based on a chapter, which will appear in the volume, The History of the Ethnography of Hunger: Research, Policy, and Practice, edited by Ellen Messer.

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Evolution and Meat

Smoked chicken!

There was a fascinating piece on the National Public Radio news program Morning Edition (on the August 2, 2010 show) regarding the links between human evolution, meat eating and cooking.  Naturally, this caught our attention here at FoodAnthropology.  It featured insights from several anthropologists and was about food.  What more can one ask from a news story?  Read and listen to it here.

There are several points of interest.  First is the idea that eating meat allowed humans to develop the kinds of brains that we have now.  A good idea, but apparently eating the meat raw was not sufficient.  In fact, eating most things raw was more difficult and, in some cases, less nutritious than eating the same things cooked.  Of course, this adds culture to evolution.  Fascinating aspect of adaptation, really.  This is precisely the kind of thing that makes evolution so amazing.  This may be an old insight in anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss made some observations on cooking, culture and evolution, for example), but it is not really appreciated by non-anthropologists, I think.

Now, I can imagine that all of this could be considered controversial from some points of view.  Folks in the vegetarian, vegan and raw food camps probably have interesting things to say about this.  They might assert that pre-historic diets of nuts and fruit, eaten raw, were really all our (very distant) ancestors needed.  So why should we need more?  They may make strange assertions about what our guts are designed to digest and suggest that we avoid meat, milk, cooked foods, etc.  The archaeologists and biological anthropologists can show that their view of our ancestors is incorrect, but that may not matter.  They will invent new ancestors.  People love to legitimize their positions through imagined ancestors.

In addition, if you read the comments at the end of the NPR piece, you will see people grappling with another kind of issue: if our ancestors developed big brains by eating meat, they seem to ask, does that mean my kid will get a big brain if he or she eats steak?  Well, no, not exactly.  There is a misunderstanding here between the idea of what is adaptive for populations and what is healthy at any given time for individuals.  Here too, people are looking for legitimacy in ancestors, but the problem is that the units of analysis are off.

The links between diet and evolution—including the choices to eat meat and to cook—were probably not well understood by our ancestors, but they did prove to be adaptive.  Are they still adaptive?  It is hard to tell.  Are they healthy for us as individuals?  You can’t really read that from the evolutionary record.  That said, it seems likely that the manner in which we produce most meat today is not sustainable.  And by sustainable, I mean that it harms the environment in ways that may harm us.  Does this mean we should cease eating meat?  Eat less of it?  Produce what we do eat differently?  I like some of those ideas, but not because I know they will prove to be adaptive in an evolutionary sense.  You can’t really make sense of the world that way—it is too abstract.  Our ancestors started at some point to eat meat and later started to cook it, along with other things.  This proved to be a great idea at the time.  I love grilling meat, so I think it is still a great idea.  But you’ll notice that one of the anthropologists cited in the story is a vegetarian (that would be Richard Wrangham, author of the very interesting book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, 2009, Basic Books).  He understands the adaptive nature of meat eating and cooking in the past.  So what does his choice mean now?

You can’t really plan an evolutionary strategy.  You can only tell that what your ancestors did worked at the time.  If our choices are adaptive today, we will have descendants who can look back and appreciate those choices.  I guess that is why it is evolution, not revolution.

posted by David Beriss

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