All posts by Lua

Lua Wilkinson (路依依) recently finished her graduate degree in medical anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver and is currently in China as part of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. A registered dietitian, she has worked in clinical nutrition settings, public health and policy development, and health education projects. Her current research interests include nutrition and the role of social inequities, infant feeding among migrant women, and the worldwide impacts and causes of malnutrition. 

Food Categories, China, and the Biomedical Model

As a trained nutritionist, I was taught about food and nutrition mainly as a science, chemical interactions divorced from their larger cultural contexts. Western scientists have “fine-tuned” nutritional components into large categories (protein, carbohydrates, fat) and small categories (vitamins, minerals). I was taught that this form of categorization is science, it is biological, and these are the components that are compatible with life on this planet.

Nutrition has been medicalized in the West, but humans enjoy the taste of food as well, ensuring that food and nutrition have become part of consumer culture. Each time we sit down to a table, or put something in our mouth we do so in the context of this culture. There are good foods (vegetables, fruits, organics, whole) and bad foods (fast food, convenience food, GMO’s, pesticides). Western society also has a somewhat collective understanding of snack food and comfort food, healthy food and unhealthy food, food for babies and food the elderly. There are foods that men eat, and foods that women eat. This is food, but this is NOT food.

Biological necessities such as food and nutrition do not develop outside of the context of culture and human interaction. In fact, we can probably say that one of the roles of “culture” has been to modify these biological dispositions, and the most rudimentary ways we do this is through categorization. George Lakoff explained in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things “…the chain of inference–from conjunction to categorization to commonality–is the norm. The inference is based on the common idea of what it means to be in the same category: things are categorized together on the basis of what they have in common”. Creating and understanding categories helps us reaffirm our shared identity that is culture.

There are multiple and contradictory categories of food and nutrition globally. Because nutrition and food are inextricably linked both politically and economically to health, however, what foods are categorized and why, matters. Food and nutrition are packaged and marketed for things like taste and enjoyment. But food is also packaged and sold to promote health, oftentimes by corporations with the blessing of global health organizations. This is primarily done through our understanding of the biomedical model of nutrition. Worldwide, however, traditional categories of what foods are healthy and why do not always integrate well into this model. Continue reading

The Individual, the Collective, and the New Motherhood in China

The responsible thing to say about breastfeeding is that breast is best. And of course, breastfeeding is best, depending on how you define best I guess. Studies show that hundreds of thousands of babies could be saved each year if breastfeeding practices were initiated at birth. According to all credible international health organizations, breastfed babies do better nutritionally, emotionally, psychologically, and developmentally. When doing graduate research work in Papua New Guinea, I witnessed first-hand the havoc that can be caused when breastfeeding is abandoned for the modern convenience of bottle feeding. The sad truth is, in the face of unsanitary conditions and poverty, babies who don’t breastfeed fare much worse.

In China over the last thirty years, many political, economic, and social changes have occurred to affect breastfeeding rates. This includes women entering the workforce, family planning policies, migration and the “left-behind child” phenomenon. While I have never spoken to a Chinese person who isn’t adamant that yes, breast is clearly best, the decision making process around infant feeding remains much more complex. While mothers remain the main caregivers for infants in Western countries, in China it is other family members (mainly grandparents) who shoulder the responsibility for infant feeding and caretaking. Continue reading

Nutrition and Economic Systems

A person’s relationship to food and nutrition is often seen in the context of needing to be in balance; too much food leads obesity, too little leads to malnutrition. Obesity and malnutrition are seen as binary opposites, however, in the neoliberal context of public health and economic development policies: malnutrition is often seen as a structural problem, caused by poverty, marginalization, and lack of resources, whereas obesity is moralized and seen as an individual choice, caused by irresponsible personal behavior. Poverty alleviation policies worldwide tend to focus on economic development and consumption, whereas weight management campaigns center around lifestyle changes and moderation.

China, for example, has pulled millions out of poverty by speedy economic growth over the last 30 years, and has decreased the incidence of malnutrition (defining malnutrition as underweight or stunting) to less than 10 percent of the population. Obesity rates, of course, have increased concurrently (along with diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure), especially in urban areas. Non-communicable diseases such as those related to ones caused by obesity have now overtaken infectious causes as the main cause of death in China.

China’s model of economic development has focused on consumerism and advancements in agriculture. This capitalistic “China model” has been wildly successful in improving access to capital, education, expanding the labor market and ameliorating malnutrition in urban areas. Rural areas, on the other hand, remain impoverished and economically underdeveloped. Malnutrition, especially among infants and children, remains commonplace. In order to understand why this nutritional divide exists in China, one must stop thinking about food as nutrition, and must instead start to think of it as part of the larger economic system. Continue reading

Anthropology and Nutrition

Savage Minds is happy to welcome Lua Wilkinson as a guest blogger.

Despite advances in agriculture and medicine over the last century, millions die each year as a direct result from hunger and malnutrition. While malnutrition clearly warrants the attention of the medical community, chronic hunger remains a social illness.

Paradoxically, non-communicable disease is now overtaking infectious pathogens as a leading killer in the world. Obesity poses a real risk to both economically developing and industrialized nations by leading to diseases such as diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease and stroke, and certain cancers.

Anthropologists have much to contribute to the discourse surrounding nutrition in the world today. Not only are anthropologists cultural experts well versed in the history of human subsistence patterns, they are also uniquely placed to examining the political, economic and social interactions of food and nutrition. Global hunger does not occur because of lack of food; on the contrary, we currently have enough food available in order to feed everyone in the world and then some. Food is always available to those who can afford it. The answer to solving world hunger does not lie in more food, more aid, or more GMO’s. Hunger simply ends with poverty.

Conversely, causes and impacts of obesity span across social, economic, structural and political lines. Public health campaigns have notoriously failed in the *fight against* obesity, namely by focusing attention on individual lifestyle changes while overlooking structural causes of obesity. There is a strong demand for anthropologists to take a critical look at these global nutrition problems. Anthropological research has particular salience to global policies surrounding nutrition. As cultural experts who make explicit the links between health, economics, politics and the human experience, anthropological research is becoming increasingly important to gaining a more holistic picture of the causes and impacts of nutrition-related problems in the world today.

In these next few weeks as a guest writer, I will talk about the social and cultural contexts of nutrition, poverty, hunger and obesity. Particular attention will be played to China and the field of childhood nutrition, but will be happy to discuss other areas as well.