Thursday, February 28, 2013

good food, bad food

Last month, I announced I was TA-ing for an undergraduate course, Food and Communications. It's going exceptionally well :). So, despite the fact that I'm swamped with midterm assignments at the moment, I want to talk about our most recent topic: nutrition.
You may or may not know this, but our nutrition-based approach to eating is very much American. How'd it come about? In Quantifying the American Eater: USDA nutrition guidance and a language of numbers, Jessica Mudry explains: "In order to better 'assimilate' these new Americans, Progressive reformers, under the aegis of both public and privately funded organizations, attempted to teach Americans how to live, dress, be tasteful consumers, and eat," (235). Yep. Calories, a unit of measurement for energy + vitamins, organic chemical compounds obtained from the diet + all this scientific discourse was developed in order to promote citizenship and invent a "standard American diet."
What's the problem? Well, "the eater becomes a fictional aggregate of numbers and statistics," (Mudry 250). And when what we eat is based on hunger, availability, price, and desire, including the desire to 'be good' and 'eat well'... things get complicated. "On the one hand, our advice about the health benefits of diets based largely on food plants--fruits, vegetables and grains--has not changed in more than 50 years and is consistently supported by ongoing research. On the other hand, people seem increasingly confused about what they are supposed to eat to stay healthy," (Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, Nestle).
Most alarming is the fact that, "at the level of everyday experience, nutritionism has given rise to and promoted the nutritional gaze--a way of looking at and encountering food as being composed as nutrients, which overwhelms other ways of encountering and sensually experiencing food," (On the Ideology of Nutritionism, Scrunis 46). Why does it matter? Because in addition to confusing us, this 'nutritional gaze' also exceptionally distorts our relationship with food. As Carole M. Counihan pointed out in her book, The Anthropology of Food and Body: Gender, Meaning, and Power: "Personal expression of willpower and release of control only under certain culturally sanctioned conditions are the key issues in their relationship to food an in their overall ideology of life," (118).
"In fact, women are much more likely than men to be the targets of judgement comments made by both women and men on all topics related to eating. The acceptance of this fact and its constant reproduction by women as well as men reinforces the subordinate position of women, who are judged, relative to men, who do the judging. Given the importance of being attractive to men in the college 'culture of romance' (Holland and Eisenhart 1990), it is no wonder that my female informants devote a great deal of time and energy worrying about their weight and food consumption," (Counihan 125).

The fourth photo above is from last year's Thanksgiving dinner in Paris. The first three were taken the day before I left New York. On January 10th, my mom declared that neither she, myself, nor my sister had been able to enjoy it at home, so we should belatedly celebrate. Gosh do I love my mom. I may have figured out another reason I love Thanksgiving, too. It's one of the few days of the year I don't consider nutrition. No matter how much I've been inspired by alternative approaches, I suppose I'll always be American in this way. Maybe I'm okay with that though. 'Good' food can have a place in my diet... just as long as I leave room for other 'good food', too. With National Eating Disorders Awareness (NEDA) Week in mind, I sincerely hope you're able to do the same.


  1. I lot of very interesting points! Especially the one about the culture of judgment keeping women in a weaker position in society... sometimes I read men's magazines and I'm always surprised at just the subtle different in tone, where it doesn't feel like the articles are talking down to the reader in some way. And then I'm disappointed that I should find this surprising. This sounds like a really great course you are TAing!

    1. Thanks! I found the material fascinating, too. I'm really enjoying the course and obviously doing a lot of self-reflecting as a result.

  2. Hey Danielle! Just catching up on all your posts. That's exciting being a tutor! I'm doing a PhD in sustainable food systems, and nutrition/labels fall into it. It's good to know these sources. I wonder what the alternatives would be. UK has a red, orange and green light system to help consumers based on qualities of the food and environmental impact. It'd be debatable about whether this is a good system or bad system. Anyway just some thoughts! Thanks for the sources.

    1. How interesting, Hope! I don't know that alternatives are necessarily an option at this point, actually, but it's interesting to observe other countries' approaches. Glad the sources are of help to you!


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