The Choice Between Food As Culture and Food As Medicine | A Black Girl's Guide To Weight Loss

The Choice Between Food As Culture and Food As Medicine

food-and-culture

Really, I should’ve titled this “The Choice Between Food As Culture and Food As ‘Everything And Anything Else’,” because it’s not exactly where the blogger was going with this, but there’s a point to be made here, nonetheless:

To see food as simply good or bad nutrition also medicalizes it, underplaying all the other reasons people eat.

Alice Julier, a sociologist and head of Chatham University’s Food Studies program, wrote this in an article called “The Political Economy of Obesity: The Fat Pay All,” in regards to the idea of taxing junk food and soft drinks. The article is about how the obesity epidemic serves social and political purposes in much the same ways as poverty: as a means of masking larger structural problems. Julier argues that when obesity is the focus of the discussion, it places the blame on those that are fat, as opposed to the problems in our society that do not allow access to healthy food.

For me, this quote is an important distillation of something that I think about often, and that those of us involved in food studies and the food movement at large need to think about more.

I look at the way that I and many of my cohorts seek out local, organic food, yet drink Diet Coke, and we use recipes by Alice Waters that celebrate “clean,” “simple” foods yet will also make Betty Crocker recipes that call for Crisco. I don’t see this contrast as a bad thing, but I think that we need to examine the privileges we have that allow us to make these choices. The fact that we have some level of disposable income, access to education, and enough to eat every day are just some of the factors that create the environment in which we have these choices—and that’s something we shouldn’t overlook. [source]

If there’s one thing that I complain about - loudly – it’s the fact that The Food Movement, in all its good intentions, ignores the fact that often choice – or lack thereof – is the real barrier for many Americans, not simply ignorance or blatant rejection. So if anything, I appreciate the fact that “choice” makes an appearance in this post.

That being said, I’m a little frustrated by other parts of it.

The quote, “To see food as simply good or bad nutrition also medicalizes it, underplaying all the other reasons people eat,” to me, is disingenuous. Is it wise to see food as simply good or bad nutrition? Sure. But offering up that sentence as if it’s proof positive that there’s a problem with “medicalizing” food at all is equally unwise, to me.

Now, mind you, “medicalizing” (this is such a cute term) our food has left us susceptible to seeking out nutrients, as opposed to seeking out the original sources of all nutrients: fruits and vegetables. The fact that a sweet potato can’t wear pretty packaging that says “I fight cancer! Eat me with butter!” or “Look! No trans-fats!” has left us thinking that the processed product with the pretty labels that say “No trans-fats… even though I do have a little in here, but don’t look at that!” are better for us than the things that the eco-system has created specifically for our nutritional benefit. In one hand, it’s easy to see why we’ve grown so unhealthily in the past few decades. In the other, it’s hard to understand why this makes total and complete sense.

Hippocrates said, once upon a time, “Let thy food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be thy food.” He knew then, and we know now. We can’t deny its importance.

We can talk about food in terms of merely nutrition, but nowhere else are we more aware of the fact that food is culture personified than we are here, at BGG2WL. As one dear reader commented:

Food speaks to nationalities, cultural roots and family traditions as much as anything in the world society. So to change our eating habits is truly to change our lives and step onto new ground. It is a radical thing for some people.

When I look at communities like my own, I see the problem that Julier sees, but in reverse: a collective that rejects the notion of healthier eating – thereby rejecting the medicinal benefits of such – simply because the cultural capital of Eating  The Way We Do is so important. And really, think about the remnants of Black tradition and culture – our religion, our families, our everything was broken down and stripped from us in an effort to demoralize us and keep us captive. One of the most obvious things that couldn’t be taken from us was our food knowledge – the very thing that didn’t require dialogue to teach. I mean, c’mon – once you know how to make gumbo …it’s like riding a bike.

This entire post makes me think back to a few weeks ago, when I was dining with a loved one who prepared a pretty awesome dinner for my daughter and I. We sat together, we ate, we talked, we laughed… the entire set-up lasted about an hour or so, before I decided to get up and get a little bit more. That’s when I was told, “For some strange reason, it makes me happy to see you enjoying my food,” at which point I replied “Oh, there’s nothing strange about that at all.”

Food is a representation of love. It’s a part of how I love my daughter. That’s right. I said it. It’s how I go out of my way to ensure that she has an enjoyable experience. It’s how I make sure she is properly nourished. It’s how we enjoy one another’s company – every time I pull an herb or spice out of the cabinet, she asks to smell it; every time she sees me mixing something, she asks to taste it – and it’s how I teach her about the kitchen. This… thing… that I do for her several times a day every day brings us closer. She feels cared for by receiving, and I feel nurturing by giving. There’s no way around that.

In that same vein, I also think it’s equally dangerous to the dialogue to characterize food as merely emotional. Boy, I could hear the arguments, now. “If food is merely emotional, then that’s just one more thing fat people can’t control: their emotions. Ugh!” I think that’s what annoyed me the most about the assertion the quoted post makes. That a grad student sucking down diet soft drinksgross, by the way – with organic TV dinners who can, assumedly, afford both and has a choice and chose totally different ends of the spectrum… is implying that “medicalizing” food doesn’t help. Considering the collective built around this blog, I’d have to disagree.

We’re aware of the medicinal benefits of real food because we live it. I’m a staunch advocate of broccoli because, damn it, I ate it daily and have a lot to show for it. I’m pretty damn adamant about people not making excuses for not making the sacrifices necessary for making healthier food choices because, damn it, I do it every day and I have a lot to show for it. We know these things. We know these things. We also know that some of us have had to convert family over to the green side, and lots of them have enjoyed the ride. Food can be enjoyable and healthy. This point must be hammered home.

All that being said… as with all things, a balance must be struck. Should food be medicinal, strictly? Of course not. Should it be deemed strictly an emotional experience? Not at all. It is both, without a doubt, and they go hand in hand every time. I can put every ounce of love I’ve got in preparing an amazing dinner for my little one and I, knowing that it consists of purely everything she needs to grow healthily, and not a single chemical more. Both mentalities can co-exist happily in the same household. It doesn’t have to be so polarizing. Most people reject polarizing stances anyway not only because of the discomfort that comes with change, but because it’s off putting. More often than not, people are more offended by zealots than they are intrigued by them.

Can we encourage healthy eating, foster a love of cooking as well as cultivate a sensible knowledge of how to embrace fruits and vegetables? Can we flip the food movement into understanding all of the reasons America’s relationship with food is so dysfunctional, and try to keep those reasons into consideration when it tries to offer up solutions? I’m hopeful.

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes health, fitness, nutrition, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She now lives in New York with her family, and is working on her 4th, 5th and 6th certificates.

6 Comments

  1. Eva

    April 25, 2011 at 3:56 PM

    A few weeks ago I watched a show on Discovery called “Out of the Wild: Venezuela.” Nine adventurers were dropped off in a remote part of Venezuela and they had to make it back to civilization (they had a GPS button that they could press if it got to much and a helicopter would take them out).

    Anyway there was a point in which they were all starving (it had gotten down to 5 people by that time) and one of the men caught something that was able to feed all of them. Immediately the mood of the group changed, they were all sitting by the fire smiling and laughing, where hours before they were all ready to push the button and get the hell out. But the act of sitting down to a meal made them all happier and brought them together as a team. In that case, food was both medicinal and social. So it is possible that healthy food can be good for you and make you happy.

  2. milaxx

    April 25, 2011 at 4:46 PM

    First of all let me just take the time to compliment you on this blog. I enjoy reading it and it has helped me on my journey to healthier eating.

    Food is a representation of love. It’s a part of how I love my daughter. That’s right. I said it. It’s how I go out of my way to ensure that she has an enjoyable experience. It’s how I make sure she is properly nourished. It’s how we enjoy one another’s company – every time I pull an herb or spice out of the cabinet, she asks to smell it; every time she sees me mixing something, she asks to taste it – and it’s how I teach her about the kitchen. This… thing… that I do for her several times a day every day brings us closer. She feels cared for by receiving, and I feel nurturing by giving. There’s no way around that.

    I read this paragraph and remembered a little known fact I learned years ago as an undergrad. For the first few weeks of life a newborn’s range of vision is approximately 8 inches. Why? because that’s about the distance a mother’s face is from her infant when she is nursing. It helps with bonding. So in a very real way eating/nutrition is associated with love.

  3. CoCo

    April 25, 2011 at 9:21 PM

    This makes me think of my class. I go to a Christian university one night a week. Our class was encouraged to “break bread” with one another each class because it would help us get to know each other and form a bond quickly. I thought that was BS, but after a few weeks of eating with these people, discussing recipes, and making dishes that would accommodate our classmate who lives gluten free, I found myself feeling closer to them than I ever thought I would.
    In addition to making friends I’ve also had some wonderful, gluten free dishes that I never would have tried otherwise. Each time our class has dinner together I see how food nourishes us in so many ways. Eating just for the sake of nutrients and vitamins would rob the experience of a lot of the joy, I think.

  4. Alice Julier

    September 2, 2012 at 5:51 AM

    Hi,

    I found your blog and was really interested in what you have to say — and then saw that you quoted an article I wrote that’s been reprinted a lot. The article is actually a “take” on a very famous piece by Herbert Gans about the functional uses of poverty — in other words, really looking at the social and cultural why we continue to have poverty in a society where we could, in fact, materially eradicate it. So I’m just making the same argument about the state of the so-called obesity epidemic at the same time.

    But the nice long quote you have there is not from me, but from a blog by a Boston University Gastronomy student named Erin Ross — and while I know Erin and love her blog, too, what she writes is not what I write or think about food and nutrition. The sentence of mine that you are using from my article is only one part of a much larger argument that is about how we reduce food production and consumption to very simple categories — so, yes, “medicalization” (which is more than a cute term, but a really important process that shows how we can turn culture into “science” and then back again depending on how social life is being framed) but the problem with it is how it does, in fact, leave out emotions, caring, collectivities, and culture.

    I am sure you have moved well beyond this in your thinking and writing — I like some of your other entries a lot — but I’d encourage you to look at some of my other work, which is, in fact, about how caring and feeding gets culturally shaped in ways that don’t allow groups of people (women, people of color or ethnic-indigenous communities) to embrace a fuller understanding and experience without being constrained into gendered and raced categories.

    Personally and intellectually, I’m wary of stances that suggest individual choice is enough to resist a marketplace and a political system that assert so much power and energy into telling you that your choices are your main relationship to the larger culture — and that they aren’t influencing you, but you can’t find affordable and accessible broccoli in a store nearby but you can find soda.

    • Erika Nicole Kendall

      September 4, 2012 at 10:06 AM

      If you’re willing to point me in the direction of what other work you’ve found relevant, I’d gladly take a look at it.

      I’ve no problem with disagreements, but there’s a huge glaring issue in your comment that is something I find quite common when people talk about “groups of people” that society has long thought poorly of (and, in some ways, still do):

      “Personally and intellectually, I’m wary of stances that suggest individual choice is enough to resist a marketplace and a political system that assert so much power and energy into telling you that your choices are your main relationship to the larger culture — and that they aren’t influencing you, but you can’t find affordable and accessible broccoli in a store nearby but you can find soda.”

      There are over 1,000 posts on this blog that talk about my experiences with location, food deserts, capitalism, consumerism, marketing and any and all other forces that affect the choices we make as human beings… and yet and still, “individual choice” is an invaluable element to a person fighting that.

      “Individual choice” cannot be discounted because, then, it discourages exploration into the primary avenue that affects a person’s ability to exercise any choice, which is EDUCATION. It takes a LOT of effort to subvert the culture that breeds simple consumers – even when consumption is to their detriment – and educating people on WHY that effort is so necessary can oftentimes be enough for a single parent woman of color to figure out how to make it easier to take their child onto public transportation to get what they BOTH need, which is that which is unavailable to them in their own neighborhood. (That, by the way, is straight out of my own life story.)

      Discounting “individual choice” at ALL is a way that we demean people and deny them the capabilities of being able to manage their own lives without being treated as if they are incapable of exercising the same kinds of choices that others make every day… which, I hate to say it, smells like a faint hint of the same kind of attitude that makes society treat certain “groups” of people like they perpetually need “someone to do it for them.” And, what’s more, considering the rates of obesity in this society and how they don’t, in fact, coincide with the rates of poverty in this country, pretending that the only hurdle that the masses have to leap over is access is something to be wary of, as well.

      I’ll gladly change the quote citation, and I’m glad you found the blog post and contributed. I do hope you’ll dialogue with me further and I encourage you to e-mail me as well, but I just have to push back on what feels like a perpetuation of an oppressive perspective that denies people the potential to grow beyond what is generally expected of them.

  5. Olivia

    December 6, 2012 at 11:55 AM

    I know this is an old post but I am just reading it now.
    So, honestly, some of this reading was a bit above my head (probably just too deep for me to focus on right now) but I did get one premise. Food is love. I show my son love by cooking and fixing him healthy food. He is almost 1 now and his babysitter is always amazed at what I pack for his lunch-he gets quinoa, eggplant, brown rice, raspberries, etc. He eats what I eat and when she suggested I don’t bring his lunch because she can provide the food for him I had to keep from slapping that woman. I want my son to grow up eating foods that I am just now discovering to keep him strong, healthy, and hopefully with no eating issues. I can’t wait to teach him how to cook so he won’t be dependant on fast food. This is my way of showing him love from now.

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