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Before You Set a New Year’s Resolution, Read “Eating Right in America”

As the holiday season comes to an end, we march closer to the turn of a new year, a time when visions of sugar plums are replaced by New Year’s resolutions dedicated to ascetic self-improvement. From the Internet, television screens, and store shelves, the newest renditions of diet and fitness programs preach their promise to reduce, shape, and sculpt a “new you.” With this annual rite upon us, one might ponder the question: Why do Americans worry so much about what and how to eat?

Charlotte Biltekoff's "Eating Right in America" (2013)

Charlotte Biltekoff’s “Eating Right in America” (2013)

Charlotte Biltekoff, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis, steps up to answer this question in her new book, Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health, published this fall by Duke University Press. In this history of American dietary reform, Biltekoff argues that dietary choices are a near constant source of anxiety due to the “ongoing expansions in the social significance of dietary health and the moral valence of being a ‘good eater’” (5).

In a petite yet impactful 208 pages, Eating Right in America chronicles the ideals espoused by four dietary reform movements—the Progressive Era domestic science movement, the nutrition education components of the World War II home-front food program, the mainstream alternative food movement, and the anti-obesity campaigns that continue to reign—demonstrating how their purview expands beyond calories, vitamins, organics, and the body mass index as they endeavor to mold good citizens through good eating.

As a rich canon of books dedicated to American food culture has been developed over the past thirty years, others have written on the four dietary reform movements that constitute the narrative arc of Biltekoff’s text. For example, Laura Shapiro in Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century and Harvey Levenstein in Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet each historicize turn-of-the-century domestic scientists, who sought to align American eating habits with pragmatic scientific principles. Among other texts devoted to how World War II shaped American foodways, Amy Bentley’s Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity analyzes wartime food programs, demonstrating how they politicized women’s food production and consumption habits. Warren Belasco’s Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took On the Food Industry tells the story of the 1960s countercusine so completely that no other book project has needed to attempt it. And Julie Guthman’s Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism is one of the most recent and well-received works exploring obesity within the context of neoliberalism.

What makes Biltekoff’s text important, however, is how she places these four dietary reform movements in conversation with one another, revealing how even though the dietary advice imparted and the socio-cultural context that fuels it may change, the underlying message remains constant. For Biltekoff, dietary reform is always about fashioning good citizens. As such, Eating Right in America is a text with a mission. No matter how desperately they seek dietary prescriptions, this book does not seek to instruct Americans on how to eat right. Rather it encourages readers to embrace the process of “rethinking…exactly what it is we think we know about dietary health,” an endeavor that is as disorienting as it is illuminating (5). In this exercise, the empirical certainty of nutrition science is exchanged for the less stable but more dynamic understanding of dietary advice as a social and cultural construction. In this way, dietary advice—whether based on caloric efficiency, essential vitamins, knowing where your food comes from, or achieving “a healthy weight”—embodies social ideals.

Building upon this, Eating Right in America employs the tools of science and technology studies as it explores how nutrition knowledge has been constructed, naturalized, and normalized, as well as how it has come to exert such authority in shaping how Americans eat. To trace these processes, Biltekoff begins her history of dietary reform at a specific historical moment. Although ethical edicts, religious rules, philosophical perspectives, medical recommendations, and civic ideals had long shaped diets, the end of the nineteenth century ushered in a new and uniquely powerful force: the science of nutrition. These new ideas, discoveries, and ways of thinking about the relationship between food and health marked a watershed moment in American eating, which Biltekoff refers to as “modern dietary reform” (9), in which “the moral and the quantitative” (14) became irrevocably bound.

Within this line of analysis, Biltekoff also critiques the writings of Gyorgy Scrinis and Michael Pollan, both well-known in food studies circles. Although spread far and wide by Pollan, Scrinis coined the term “nutritionism” to explain the food ideology that currently guides many eaters. Focusing narrowly on food’s nutritional content alone, nutritionism ignores the influence of tradition, heritage, pleasure, and food production on how and why we eat. Biltekoff argues that although nutritionism addresses how people conceptualize good eating, it tells only part of a more complex story, as it does not address how eaters conceptualize good selves and understand other people—the additional social work that is accomplished by dietary ideals (44).

By focusing on nutrition science and the discourse of eating right, Biltekoff also undertakes a larger theoretical project to “illuminate…the cultural politics of health, the historical dynamics of class, and the process of social normalization” (4), as well as to “provoke a dialogue about what health really means to us and what its pursuit should look like” (4). With social class a central feature of her narrative, she also hopes to “cause readers to think about dietary health as a privilege” (4).

To achieve these aims, Biltekoff engages the work of political economist Robert Crawford, which argues that health is a cultural concept of deep and enduring moral value (5-6), “a metaphor for all that is good in life” (Crawford 1980), and a key component of middle class identity (Crawford 1994). Biltekoff focuses Crawford’s work on nutrition, eating, and food specifically as she also draws from John Coveney’s Food, Morals and Meaning: The Pleasure and Anxiety of Eating to demonstrate how nutrition provides both empirical and ethical rules by which individuals construct not only a good diet, but also good selves (6-7). Biltekoff marries concepts from Crawford and Coveney and then builds upon them, as she argues that dietary advice expresses social ideals of good citizenship and moralized middle class social identity.

Most broadly, Eating Right in America is a cultural and social history of American dietary reform, but in its approach, scope, perspective, and aims, it draws multiple fields into energetic discussion. The text engages both critical nutrition studies and science and technology studies as it interrogates scientific knowledge production in historical perspective. Positioned at the intersection of food studies and fat studies, the text also pushes both fields further. Biltekoff argues that food studies scholars have done little to “historiciz[e] or theoriz[e] health” as it relates to food nor questioned the “distinctly biomedical orientation” of good eating in America (8). She also encourages fat studies to expand the limits of its focus, revealing how studying fat in concert with food, health, and identity can illuminate the broader context surrounding the vilification of fat bodies in America (8). Taking its own medicine, Eating Right in America quite successfully forges ahead in these new directions for both food studies and fat studies.

Supremely interdisciplinary, Eating Right in America tells a story of twentieth century eating and health that is informative, reaffirming, and groundbreaking, appropriate for a diverse audience of undergraduate and graduate students, food studies scholars, public health professionals, dietitians, fat activists, and American historians. Written in highly accessible and readable prose, full of thought-provoking historical images, and donning a colorful cover that will brighten any bookshelf, it is also sure to enlighten and entertain readers outside of the academy.

3 Comments

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

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