Epistemologies of Healthy Eating

This may turn out to be more of a rant than I’m intending, but bear with me.

Today, I was in a discussion section for anthropology in which we were discussing sugar. The book we’re reading, Sweetness and Power, focuses on the history of sugar and the way that it has been an indicator of social class from its conception to the present. Anyway, I won’t focus too much on the book itself. Basically, the TA made it relevant to the modern day by asking about types of sugar people put in their coffee, like Sugar in the Raw, the non-descript white sugar, sugar syrup, Sweet’N Low, etc., and what types of people we associated with each kind of sugar.

People were going around, saying their opinions of each, and a common theme was the word “education”. Apparently, if you are highly educated, you are taught what is “healthy” and what isn’t. Sugar in the Raw is, apparently, healthy, while plain white sugar is not. Diet soda is healthy while regular soda is not. Gluten-free is healthy and gluten is not. Unprocessed foods are healthy while processed foods are not. And the difference between people who eat healthy and people who don’t? Education.

This was so infuriating to listen to.

While I’m certainly not saying unprocessed foods are unhealthy, or even that they aren’t more healthy than processed foods, the reason people are attracted to unprocessed foods isn’t education surrounding what defines health–it’s money and status. While people in the room claimed that unprocessed food was the healthier kind, they were unable to define the difference between processed and unprocessed. They’re vague terms that are often thrown around, with people claiming that unprocessed sugar is so healthy while processed sugar is not. If you’re lucky enough to have a Whole Foods in your neighborhood and can afford to shop there, great, buy your Sugar in the Raw and claim to be significantly healthier than the population that may not even be aware of what Whole Foods is and certainly can’t afford it. It has nothing to do with health education. By that logic, “education” has also taught us that people should avoid carbs at all costs, eat granola bars or shakes in place of meals, and do regular juice cleanses–diet fads marketed to the rich, who are privileged enough to cut meals rather than settling for what they can afford. While any or all of these may be the secret to healthy living (which is unlikely, but I’m not ruling anything out), they typically aren’t focused on health as much as the popular idea of health at the time (which generally includes weight loss.) Again, I’m definitely not saying that unprocessed foods aren’t significantly healthier than processed foods, but let’s think about the demographic to which health foods are marketed. Typically, the person shopping at Whole Foods isn’t living below the poverty line, and I’m certain there are people who eat well, feel great, and don’t buy all organic, all the time.

Basically, all I’m saying is that the ways in which “healthy” is portrayed by the people selling the food or encouraging the weight loss should be viewed critically. Nutrition, while important to living well, is, in today’s society, heavily linked to weight loss and the need to sell a product. Diet fads and perceptions of health by the media are typically targeted to rich, white females–health isn’t a word that belongs to the poor.

It’s a class thing, it’s a privilege thing, it’s a gender thing, but it’s certainly not an education thing.



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