With the federal new nutritional guidelines coming out today, I suspect there will be a lot of talk about why the guidelines ultimately didn't recommend less meat eating, the impact of the guidelines, and the process behind the formation of the guidelines.
As such, now is probably as good a time as any to share a few thoughts about Charlotte Biltekoff's book, Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health, which I picked up over the break. In the book, Biltekoff argues that dietary advice is about much more than just science and represents a social construct laden with moral undertones. She recounts the history behind several different phases of the dietary reform movements in the US starting with the science-based nutrition efforts (the force behind "home economics") that began in the late 1800s and early 1900s right through to today's alternative food movement (as far as entertaining food history goes, I prefer Harvey Levenstein's Fear of Food). The thing that unites all the food reformers, Biltekoff argues, isn't the actual diets they recommend but rather the religious fervor of the people recommending the diets.
She argues that one of the reasons we worry so much about what we eat today is:
Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised that as organized religion as been on the decline in recent decades that people are seeking to express their moral chops in other domains - food now being a common choice.
Interestingly, Biltekoff is quite critical of the modern alternative food movement led by Alice Waters and Michael Pollan. It is a movement that she, quite rightly, says has served to discount scientific evidence and to elevate the role of the senses and tradition. She also notes how the movement has, "heightened the moral valence of eating right with alternative food, creating higher stakes for food and bad eating than in previous eras" and that it "wielded its own moral force with little-self awareness or critique."
Biltekoff concludes with the following:
I tried to put it more plainly in the Food Police: don't be a backseat driver when it comes to food.
Overall, I found the book to be a bit verbose, relativistic, and social-class-focused for my tastes, but it nonetheless provided some good food for thought.