A Meal

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.

Click here and here for interviews with Fielding-Singh. For more about her new book, click here.

A Meal, painting by Carl Bloch / WikiArt

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November 21, 2021

One Response to “How a Narrow Definition of Healthy Diverges from Health”

  1. November 22, 2021 at 8:08 am, Michael Jones said:

    Why the constant logical gymnastics to turn everything to race? I’m Irish, I have long advocated for collard greens and for the limitation or elimination of potatoes in those with obesity. We tend to speak to our own experience. If a person has more exposure to kale than collard greens (whatever the underlying reasons) they will naturally point to it more readily than greens with which they’ve had less experience. We find that in medication prescribing as well. If one has trained in a program where one brand of a class of drug was dominant (often due to formulary) they become more familiar with its use and are more likely for it to become their “go to” in that class.