I have lived in many places, but I will always call Guatemala, where I was born and raised, home. Through my travels, I found a passion for exploring cultures through food and nutrition. I am a Nutritional Anthropologist with a B.A. in Anthropology and a M.Sc. in Food and Nutrition a full-time freelance researcher and writer.
When people ask me what I do, I prefer to respond with the answer to the question “What are you passionate about?”
What you do can change from day to day. You can quit your job, graduate from college, or decide to switch career paths. What you are passionate about is much more interesting and it says a lot more about who you are. It also usually stays much more constant – even when your job changes.
So, what do I say when people ask me what I do?
I say I am passionate about food and nutrition culture.
In other words, I like digging deep into food choices that people make and why they make them.
I love thinking about how people choose what to eat based on tradition, celebration, beliefs, likes and dislikes, and how these choices (often made based on intangible ideas), affect our nutrition and health on a cellular level.
Perhaps I need to break this down. I hope that, by the end of this article, you will see what I mean and how it is relevant to all of us.
The Anthropology of Human Culture (In a Nutshell)
At the base of “food and nutrition culture” is our anthropology.
Anthropology, in its simplest definition, is the study of humans. Humans are extremely complex beings. This complexity, summed up in our hundreds of thousands of cultures, is, arguably, what differentiates us from the rest of the living beings on the planet.
Culture is composed of literally everything – from what we celebrate, to what we wear, to what we believe, to how we stay alive and thriving. Even the most mundane things about our everyday life, like drinking a glass of water from the tap or walking to church are the product of our culture.
Culture is also what allows us to adapt to different environments and times. Around the world, there are millions of iterations of environments, and humans inhabit almost all of them.
Of course, people who lived in the Himalayas 200 years ago will have had a very different dress and ways of eating than those who live in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the year 2018. Our culture allows us, as a human race, to adapt to such diverse environments.
This is quite a beautiful thought when you think about it. Humans are all the same species. All 8 billion of us. We are almost genetically identical. What differentiates us is not our biology, but rather our culture.
And culture is simply the result of our adaptation to geography and the world we grow up in. We are far more similar than we are different.
Food and Nutrition as Culture
We don’t normally think of nutrition as being part of our culture. We often think of nutrition as being neutral — a basic human need and a cornerstone of health. But, when we think of experiencing a new culture, eating — trying local dishes — is usually one of the essential travel experiences.
So, let’s take a step back. What is the difference between eating and nutrition?
Well, nutrition is defined by the World Health Organization as:
the intake of food, considered in relation to the body’s dietary needs.
In other words, nutrition is composed of two parts: eating food and seeing that the food we eat meets dietary needs.
And each of these is built up of a whole bunch of other, smaller decisions: what foods we eat, what foods we don’t eat, how we obtain them, how we prepare them, and most of all, what meaning they have in our life.
All of these choices, whether we see them as such or not, can speak volumes.
Take a thing as simple as a vanilla cake with frosting. We can think about the ingredients, and how we were able to access the ingredients necessary to make the cake: did we grow the wheat and grind it to make flour? If we bought it at a supermarket, how did it get to that point? Why did we choose vanilla and not another flavor?
Then we can think about its design. Is it only one layer? Does it have candles? How would this change based on the occasion? If it were a three-tiered white-frosting cake, what occasion would we assume the cake is for?
And then we can think about meaning. How does the design of the cake change the meaning of the cake? If we don’t normally eat cake, would we allow ourselves a piece because we are celebrating? Are these meanings universal among the human race, or are these meanings cultural?
In short, it is easy to see how food is culture. And food and eating patterns make up our nutrition. These two things together (food + nutrition) help us meet our dietary needs.
Why Focusing on the Fact that Food is Culture is Important
When we think about nutrition, we can use ideas of food culture to expand our mind regarding what “healthy”, “balanced”, and “complete” diets look like.
Here are 3 reasons why focusing on food culture is important for everyone to consider, whether it be for your own diet or if you work in a field where you make dietary recommendations for other people as well.
1. It Takes the Blame Off Food
When we talk about diets, we will often talk about “good” and “bad” food. Let’s get one thing straight: food isn’t good or bad. It’s not evil and out to get us, or here to save us from all our woes. Food is just that — food.
Food can interact with our bodies, however, in ways that are not beneficial for our health. This isn’t because the food is bad, but rather because the food doesn’t meet our unique dietary needs.
As you have probably noticed, food changes from being “bad” to “good” and from “bad” to “good” overnight, depending on what popular book or paper is most recently published.
Take poor old fat, for example. As little as fifteen years ago, the go-to weight loss diet was one low in fat. Dietary fat, no matter the kind, was assumed to go straight into body fat. So, doctors and nutritionists recommended low-fat diets for fat loss.
Soon after, however, we started paying more attention to different types of fat. We saw that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat had a positive impact on measures such as blood lipids and abdominal fat.
Beyond the biochemical measurements, we started to idealize traditional diets high in these sorts of fats, like the famous Mediterranean diet. All of a sudden, foods high in unsaturated fats were no longer on the “bad food” list.
So, if food isn’t the “bad guy” than who is? In most cases, the culprit is our diet or our eating patterns.
In spaces of abundance, like urban areas and situations where food availability isn’t a matter of price, we have pretty much all the food we could ever want available year-round, including huge varieties of processed foods.
When we think of these situations, eating patterns are marked by overabundance (sometimes referred to as overnutrition, combined with malnutrition). The results are illnesses and conditions associated with “too much” and “too often”, like heart disease, obesity, stroke, and diabetes.
In spaces of scarcity or limited access, dietary patterns are marked by not enough of some things (often protein and fruit and vegetable variety) and too much of other things (like staple grains). This can lead to undernutrition or other forms of malnutrition.
The good news is, dietary patterns, like culture, is learned.
While the solution isn’t only in knowing what we are culturally-appropriate food choices that meet our dietary needs (think economic and physical access to foods), knowledge and practice are both big parts of the nutrition game.
2. It Reminds Us that “Good Food” is Subjective
As nutritionists, we cannot assume that there is a standard food pattern everyone must follow. Food must be culturally relevant. Foods commonly eaten in some cultures may be food taboos in others.
Let’s take insects as an example. In some parts of Mexico, pan-fried sonpopos with lemon and chili are a common street snack. In northern China, it’s not hard to find grilled scorpion to snack on. And in other parts of the world, they consider insects unsanitary pests, and would never consider adding it to their diet.
Nutritionally, many insects are a cheap source of high-quality protein and their production as a food source is environmentally friendly. It is a food that technically meets all your nutrient needs, but (if you grew up in Europe or America) you cringe at the thought of eating a scorpion; you don’t recognize it, don’t like the taste (and might not even try it), and don’t know how to prepare it. You wouldn’t consider it part of a balanced diet.
This often happens in situations where people experience drastic changes in food access in short periods of time. Migrant families, for example, move to a place where they cannot find or afford enough of the foods they are accustomed to in order to meet their dietary needs. Their choices become limited and often monotonous.
So, when we think about the “ideal diet” we have to remember that there isn’t one. No matter what dietary regimen you follow, food is about much more than mimicking diets we think will make us live forever and look good doing it.
Food has meaning to everyone, and remembering that will help us respect differences, and support people in having access to foods they recognize and that have meaning to them.
3. It Helps Us Focus on the Big Picture
We can write volumes about the virtues of individual foods with the hopes that the world will eat more of it.
Health, however, as a function of nutrition, is a lot more complex. Balanced nutrition is the result of processes that take place way before we put a food on our plate.
We have to consider several things.
- The physical availability of the food. How do we get it on our plate? Do we grow it? Do we buy it? If we buy it, do we get it at a grocery store? At a market? How easy is it to get the market?
- The economic access to food. Once we get to the market, what can we pay for? Does our income affect what we can buy?
- The actual consumption of the food. Is what we can buy culturally appropriate? Do we recognize it as food and a balanced diet?
- Food safety. Will the food we prepare make us sick or will it help to keep us healthy? If we can find it, pay for it, and it’s culturally appropriate, but it’s full of bacteria, it will not contribute to our health and may even weaken it.
Of course, to meet our needs and achieve good nutrition, we need to do more than spread knowledge about what we should eat more of and what to eat less of. We need to translate knowledge into action in our own lives and in the lives around us.
In short, focusing on the big picture helps us get a better understanding of the “small picture” (i.e. us, as individuals). Sometimes it means going back to human roots regarding what we ate and how we evolved to eat what we do. Other times it means “unlearning” cultural elements that we know are damaging for our health.
The good news is that I think we are on the right path to improving food culture in a lot of areas. We are becoming more aware of the health and environmental dangers of the processed food patterns we have adopted. We are coming to respect indigenous food patterns and even beginning to create spaces where traditional knowledge can be reclaimed.
Recommended Reading: Food vs. Supplements: A Nutritional Anthropologist’s Take
And, at the end of the day, this knowledge helps us make better decisions for our personal holistic health. For health professionals, it helps us make better recommendations to people based not only on their individual nutritional needs but also their culture, beliefs and individual goals by harnessing both the biological sciences, (medicine and molecular nutrition) and social sciences, with an understanding of culture and behavior.
Take Home Message
Food is marvelous. Preparing it and eating it provokes feelings of emotion. Growing it provokes feelings of pride.
These reasons and more are why food has so much meaning. This translates into food choices that then have an impact on our bodies. Our food choices are part of our identity.
We are, literally and figuratively, what we eat. Our food is culture.