Public Health/Nutrition
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Talk to Me Baby! Encouraging Dialogue between Nutrition Science and Food Studies

I’m very excited to be heading to UC Santa Cruz for Friday’s Critical Nutrition Symposium, an event that will address questions that I’ve also been pondering for a while, such as: 

  • What’s wrong or missing in conventional nutritional practice?
  • What are its effects in terms of human health and social justice?
  • What other approaches might work better?

What follows are some thoughts I have at this point on the current connections and future opportunities between nutrition and food studies, which I’m sure will be greatly expanded by the end of Friday’s discussions.

VegetablesUnlike other disciplines that inform food studies, generally heralding from the liberal arts and social sciences, nutrition science is just that – a science, thus coming from a divergent academic tradition that tends to favor statistics over narrative detail and quantitative methods over qualitative (Faltermaier 1997). In addition, nutrition and food studies contribute to one another’s fields in a more complex way because their area of focus overlaps — they both study food.

Up to our current point in history, each discipline has tended to study food in parallel, intersecting relatively rarely. Furthermore, the theoretical contribution of nutrition to food studies has been considered by some to be rather antagonistic. Michael Pollan is perhaps the loudest and most famous to attack nutrition science for encouraging individuals to conceptualize food and eating using a nutrient-by-nutrient frame, termed nutritionism by Gyorgy Scrinis, an Australian sociologist of science (Pollan 2008). Marion Nestle, a New York University professor, nutritionist, and author of Food Politics, also contends that breaking foods down into nutrients is a flawed approach as it “takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle” (quoted in Pollan 2008:62). From a food studies perspective, however, the “context of the lifestyle” is a multidisciplinary center containing a multitude of factors that impact food choice and eating patterns, factors coming from a variety of fields. Thus, there exists great potential for the fields of nutrition and food studies to enter into a deeper dialogue with one another.

There are also other instances where nutrition influences food studies. Whenever we employ a frame of health when considering food, we engage in a nutrition science discourse. Work in micro and macro food systems and societal perceptions of obesity are two other areas where considerable research has amassed. For example, in 2010, Food and Foodways presented a special issue on the topic “The Public Interest and the American Food Enterprise: Anthropological Policy Insights,” offering anthropological perspectives and analysis on issues such as food aid, world hunger, organic foods, food access, and food security – all topics traditionally considered within the purview of nutrition and public health.

Books and ApplesThere are also ways in which the field of food studies is influencing, and can continue to influence, nutrition and public health. Nutrition and public health approaches to preventing and managing obesity and disease have traditionally focused on individual education, skill building, and self-effacement, methods that have proved largely ineffective for understanding or influencing eating patterns toward a calorically prudent diet featuring more whole foods than processed. Especially as obesity rates continue to increase, nutrition and public health researchers and professionals are seeking new solutions. Some have turned to Gidden’s theories of “agency” and “social structure” to understand eating behavior, claiming that “public health lacks the theoretical frameworks to guide understanding of population eating patterns” (Delormier et al 2009). In fact, Schubert et al (2011) call for the creating of a division within nutrition science — social nutrition — that would acknowledge the role of social context, not as a mere contributor to understanding nutrition and eating, but as a central theme. More generally, researchers are more willing to entertain the theories and approaches of anthropology, sociology, ethnography, and other qualitative research methods.

We study food at an exciting time when much change is afoot. One such development is an open door for translational, interdisciplinary, and cooperative research between food studies and nutrition science.


  1. Pingback: Interdisciplinarity & Health: 10 Posts to Celebrate National Public Health Week | Emily Contois

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