Eating Right in America

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:

not because of an increase in incidence of diet-related diseases or because of growing knowledge about the role of diet in preventing such diseases, but because of ongoing expansions in the social significance of dietary health and the moral valence of being a “good eater.”


dietary ideals always communicate not only rules for how to choose a “good diet”, but also guidelines for how to be a good person.”

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:

Given its social and moral freight, eating right is a kind of unexamined social privilege. It is not unlike and is clearly connected to other forms of privilege that usually goes unnoticed by the people who possess them, such as whiteness and thinness. Choosing socially sanctioned diets makes subtle but very powerful claims to morality, responsibility, and fitness for good citizenship. We who are lucky enough to have eating habits that align with the dietary ideals or inhabit the kind of bodies that imply we may think our shapes or healthy preferences are a sign of our virtue, the result of our will, or perhaps nothing more than a lucky twist of fate ... [should understand that] history shows that there are cultural mechanisms that produce the seemingly natural alignment between ideal diets, ideal body sizes, and the habits and preferences of the elite. We should therefore question our common-sense assumptions about the “goodness” of good eaters and be very careful about the subtle forms of social and moral condemnation we mete out, often unconsciously, to “bad eaters.”

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.