You are what you eat: relating history of dietetics to obesity?

Hey HAP!

Some of you may have heard of the phrase, “you are what you eat”- whether it was from your grandmother, the Harvard freshman seminar with that title, or somewhere else.  As we’re learning in the fascinating course HS153 (History of Dietetics) by Prof. Steven Shapin, the phrase can hold a lot more meaning than what you might take at face value.

For instance, you’ve probably heard that moderation is generally a good standard for how to make up your diet for a medical reason- it’s “good for you” to not eat too many carbs or protein, but not too little of those constituents either.  Did you ever pause to reflect on the idea that moderation can have a moral notion as well, as in following moderation is a “good” virtue?  In other words, if we really are what we eat, does that mean our personal character can be judged by what we choose to feed ourselves?

Further, what if we were to pose the idea “you are how you eat”.  This requires asking questions like, what are your social surroundings when you eat; what time of day do you eat; do you eat by yourself?

This last question may actually provide some insight into the obesity epidemic; according to David Cutler’s course “The business and politics of health”, a key explanation for the recent increases in obesity rates is the increased consumption of “junk foods” containing highly processed ingredients.  While the scientific explanation for how these foods cause obesity is evident through their high levels of fats and sugars, what if there were a social explanation?  It’s easy to picture this- the social setting of many of these junk foods is that people eat them alone. 

If food since the beginning of time (think Thanksgiving) was meant to be the means for a social occasion, how has the industrialization of food efficiency changed how we now consume food?  Could we find solutions to obesity by reverting how we eat: away from excessive and spontaneous snacking, back to the traditional “family” setting of regularly-planned out, portioned meals?

Food for thought!

Posted by Alice Li ’14

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