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.


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.