How a Narrow Definition of Healthy Diverges from Health
In her new book, How the Other Half Eats, Priya Fielding-Singh tells us good nutrition comes in many forms. But the dominant culture often presents a narrow definition of a healthy diet. This happens because we often fix our attention on the merits and faults of specific foods or nutrients. She writes:
“Certain items are included in the ‘good’ and ‘healthy’ category while others are excluded and portrayed as ‘bad’ and ‘unhealthy.’ These acts of inclusion and exclusion certainly have something to do with the foods’ nutritional properties, but they also have a lot to do with these foods’ cultural and racial associations and histories. Foods are classified as healthy not just because of what they are but also because of what they represent and who they have been historically produced and consumed by.
“Discourses around soul food underscore this point. There’s a reason why people sing the praises of kale but not collard greens.”
Cultural Bias Influences Thinking About Health and Nutrition
In an interview for Science Friday, Fielding-Singh told Roxanne Khamsi that social constructs of race and class have a clear influence on ideas about healthy.
“Our understandings of what healthy foods are, what a healthy body is, are fundamentally shaped by our understandings of race and class.”
So the dominant culture becomes the source of ideas about what is healthy and good. Racial and ethnic disparities in health are wide and becoming wider. And thus, associations between diet and health might or might not always reflect the health effects of diet. Rather, they might reflect the fact that some dietary patterns serve as signals for racial and ethnic identities. Along with those identities come social and economic deprivation that can have a bigger effect on health.
Food Has Meaning Beyond Physical Health
In her research, Fielding-Singh has found that food has symbolic value that is very different for people of different social and economic status (SES). With research published in 2017, she found that high-SES parents feed children to reflect their values about health and parenting. By contrast, she learned that low-SES parents provide food as a buffer against deprivation.
But dietary behavior can easily become a subtly racist rationalization for health disparities. In the American Journal of Public Health, Mary Bassett and Jasmine Graves wrote:
“There are two main racist ideas that dominate explanations of Black–White disparities in health, arguments extended to all non-Whites. The first argument is the biological inferiority of non-Whites. The second, presently more dominant, holds that defects among Blacks lie not in genetic makeup, but in behavior.”
Food is far more than mere medicine. It is an expression of who we are – who and what we love. When we use a narrow lens for our view of what is healthy nutrition, we reinforce systemic bias that fuels health disparities.
Perhaps some of the energy that goes into “educating” people to eat “right” would have better effect if it went into reducing social and economic disparities that are fundamentally unjust.
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November 21, 2021
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