Friday, February 18, 2011

Analysis #6 - The (Not So Obvious) Meaning of Food

If there's one thing in the world that we all share it's eating. Every human, every living organism, every tiny particle of life form on Earth must take in nutrients in order to sustain itself and survive. Although the types and availability of food resources themselves may vary across cultures and geographical regions, we all partake in the universally accepted and essential activity of eating. The most basic (and most obvious) reason for eating is to provide our bodies with the energy it requires to function properly - energy that we are able to obtain from consuming animal and plant products, which sustain us through nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats, sugars, and vitamins. In recent times, much emphasis has been placed on the value and functionalities of these nutrients, creating what Gyorgy Scrinis classifies as the "ideology or paradigm of nutritionism [which] has come to dominate, to undermine, and to replace other ways of engaging with food and of contextualizing the relationship between food and the body" (Scrinis, 39). Our growing obsession with the biochemical composition and nutrients of foods has led us to become more dependent "on nutritional experts as a source of knowledge about food" (Scrinis, 46). Our nutritionally reductive approach to food reflects not only society's changing demands and values (of health and diet), but it also displays our infatuation with the "perfect body" and the power it holds in shaping and maintaining our identities.

The image above, taken from a bodybuilding blog (, depicts a simple picture of a fork, knife, and plate. Seems normal enough, yet the plate is the centerpiece in this image as it is shown tied around and knotted by a measuring tape. The message of the image is clear and concise: it reminds us of the all-too-familiar phrase "you are what you eat". This image is a good example of the nutritional reductionism, biomarker reductionism, and genetic reductionism that Scrinis discusses in his chapter "On the Ideology of Nutritionism". As the image suggests, our experience with food and eating is something "that must be measured, monitored, and scientifically managed" (Scrinis, 46). Unlike our hunting and gathering ancestors, modern humans have modified the meaning of eating and have extended its definition to incorporate not only its essential role for survival, but a more broader landscape of its usages in terms of identity maintenance. Food is no longer just food; it has now become the very grounds on which we evaluate food products and make health-conscious decisions about what to eat and what not to eat. Hillel Schwartz argues, in R. Marie Griffith's chapter on "The Erotics of Abstinence in American Christianity", that "modern dieting is itself a central ritual in what has become the predominant religion of late twentieth century America: the worship of the body beautiful, lean, and physically fit" (Griffith, 38). Such "worshipping" of the body does not serve merely as a figure of speech. In fact, as Griffith informs us, "American culture's treasured doctrine of the perfectible body is deeply indebted to Christian currents that have perceived the body as central for pushing the soul along the path to progress" (Griffith, 38). This path to progress was most easily indexed through "the size and fitness of his or her body" (Griffith, 41) and would entail abstinence from food (during the early fourth century C.E.), which was seen as "a means of purification, a sign of grief, a work of charity, or an expression of penitence, and the desire for God's mercy" (Griffith 36). In this sense, food was used as a way to maintain spiritual health, by advising Christian followers to consume foods from the Kingdom of God while avoiding "worldly" or fattening foods (Griffith, 42). Food not only holds a biological and/or physiological importance on our bodies, but according to early forms of American Christianity, it also maintained a religious power over our bodies and souls.

Edward Dumke, author of Christian diet book The Serpent Beguiled Me and I Ate: A Heavenly Diet for Saints and Sinners, advises readers that "thou shalt consume sufficient protein but thou shalt limit the amount of animal protein...Thou shalt create a diet in complex carbohydrates...Thou shalt create a diet low in saturated fat" (Griffith, 44). Such religio-scientific advice regarding food intake mirrors the nutritionally reductive approach mentioned earlier in Scrinis' chapter that discusses our narrow focus on the biochemical breakdown or nutrient composition of the foods we consume. Much like Dumke, "nutritionists highlight the distinctions between good and bad cholesterol, good and bad fats, and good and bad carbohydrates" (Scrinis, 44). This "nutri-quanitification" (Scrinis, 43) is evident in other nutrition discourses such as macrobiotics, which, "like traditional diets, categorizes food into better and worse options" (Crowley, 37). Food becomes once again something that can be distinctively measured and within macrobiotics, it is "understood to precede and to give rise to every thought, speech, feeling, and act" (Crowley, 38). Macrobiotics does not use food as a means of controlling spiritual enlightenment or maintaining culturally-imposed images of the ideal body; it instead "offers satisfactions derived not from trying to fit one's body to an unattainable ideal, but from exerting some control over gender" (Crowley, 38) by allowing individuals to adjust their daily intake of yin and yang (feminine and masculine energy, respectively). According to macrobiotics, certain foods (i.e. fruits and alcohol) are categorized as "yin foods" while others (i.e. meat and eggs) are categorized as "yang foods". The belief that by "eating certain foods cooked in certain ways, an individual can achieve a healthy new gender balance" (Crowley, 40) parallels the beliefs of nutritional reductionism in the sense that foods can be broken down according to their various nutrients and can serve functional purposes in bodily health.

While going about our daily lives and busy work schedules, we rarely think twice (or even once) about the all-too-mundance activity of eating. We partake in the activity of eating everyday without stopping to think about how our choices of food have been influenced by the advice of nutritional experts, marketing strategies of the food industry, and dietary guidelines established by the government and various other institutions. Food holds a very powerful control over our lives simply due to the fact that we require it for our very survival. Yet food "has the capacity not only to nourish the body but also to alter personality and behavior" (Crowley, 40) through religious, gender, social, and cultural systems of power.

Works Cited:

Gyorgy Scrinis, 2008. “The ideology of Nutritionism,” Gastronomica 8(1): 39-48.

R. Marie Griffith, 2001. “Don’t Eat That’: The Erotics of Abstinence in American Christianity.” Gastronomica 1(4): 36-47.

Karlyn Crowley, 2002. “Gender on a Plate: The Calibration of Identity in American Macrobiotics.” Gastronomica 2(3): 37-48.

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