Prevailing voices in the public and health sciences state that lower class people are much more likely to become “overweight” compared to their “middle” and “high class” counterparts. In this sense, the so-called “obesity epidemic” becomes inseparable from the discussion of class, and the equation remains clear: “the poor are fat and the fat are poor.” In order to explain the link between class and body weight, people generally refer to two assumptions about poor people: they have less access to healthy food and they don’t know which food is healthy. Over the last decades, studies that explore the social determinants of health and illness in populations (“social-epidemiology”) have particularly discussed this relation between food and fatness as a class…

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Women at the Butcher’s The German weekly newsreel, the Ufa-Wochenschau, opened their program on 23 November, 1962 with a sequence from a West German butcher’s shop, portraying a group of women shopping. Examining the meat at display, they all shook their heads expressing their dissatisfaction with what was available: “That’s too fat! No thanks, that’s too fat!“ they chorused, shaking their heads. Their voices marked an ultimate turning point in the relationship between food and health in modern German history. For the first time changes in the labor market and the growth of prosperity led to worries about excess in society as a whole in the 1960s, instead of the previously known worries about scarcity. Less physical work, less need…

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The understanding that women are more likely to be fat than men and need fewer calories is common sense and counts as a truism in today’s nutritional discourse. Yet it has a relatively young history, one that shows how nutritional science contributes to shaping gender difference and ultimately putting women in their place. In the late 19th and early 20th century, nutritional research legitimized an unequal access to food for men and women and created fatness as a problem of passive women unable to keep up with modern times.   Dietary Studies and Women’s Food Needs In the late 19th century US, nutritional science emerged in a society shaped by the belief that scientific expertise—especially on bodies—was key to individual…

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In May this year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) introduced new labels that will have to be printed on most packaged food products by July 2018. In a presentation at the White House, Michelle Obama praised the label as making “a real difference in providing families across the country the information they need to make healthy choices.” Recent posts on this blog have discussed notions of transparency and choice. Today, I want to add some remarks on the history and politics of the gauge on which a lot of today’s food talk is based: on calories. The new food label includes a line on added sugars as well as changes in serving sizes. Its most visible change, however,…

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Food research is a kind of extreme sport. For one thing, it seems to have more than its share of converts whose enthusiasm for what they do borders on the evangelical. But most of all, food research is risky. Its intellectual terrain is seismically volatile and deep hidden chasms await the careless at every step. Peaks of euphoric discovery seem always to be followed by bottomless uncertainty and confusion. Perhaps I exaggerate, but I can think of no other area of enquiry that produces and destroys so many orthodoxies, or where common sense ideas turn to chimera with such regularity. George Johnson, the American science writer, recently recounted the curious example of food research and cancer. Johnson recalls that by…

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