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Early on a wintry December morning, Michael LaCombe, Ph.D., associate professor of history, and Douglas London, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology, shared their opinions of what has been the focus of their research and a controversial topic in recent years: food. The role of food in our lives is extremely complicated and is impacted by so many factors—cultural, economic and political.
Here is an excerpt from the discussion:
Is obesity a modern-day problem? Is it the type of food, the portions, the additives? Is it an historical problem, or are we just more conscious of it now?
LONDON: There are some very recent articles that question whether or not obesity is as bad as you think it is. Yes, certain diseases are caused by obesity, but some studies show that overweight people actually have less disease than other people. So it’s a very confusing picture. That being said, I don’t think people were obese in our origins as hunter/gatherers, and I don’t think it’s just a matter of exercise. We used to have some control over our satiation. Considering the type of diet the Waorani tribe that I’m working with eat, they should be obese. They eat a lot of meat—much more than we’d eat. But it’s also the type of fats they’re eating. And the fact that we have no ability to taste foods and use our own physiology to control what we eat. We’re going to have more serious problems and it’s a complicated issue. Throughout history, people weren’t as obese, but today, on some islands in the Pacific, there are some very overweight people who pride themselves in being like that. Obesity was not always considered unattractive, and certainly throughout history there were plenty of instances in which it showed that you were well off. But it’s not a matter of being obese–it gets back to the root of what you’re eating and the ratio in which you’re eating it.
LACOMBE: There’s an interesting fluctuation over the last few years or so. One interesting feature of our food history is that people were on various diet crazes during the Great Depression. You think of the Great Depression as this era of widespread privation, but at the same time, the more affluent were dieting their way to this sticklike, 1920s body type. In America, we as a nation sort of fluctuate between viewing obesity as a medical problem or a moral failing. Is it a medical problem? Should we be looking at what kinds of food people are eating? Are they exercising? You hear all these recommendations that kids should get off the subway one stop early and walk. Is obesity really a question of willpower? That anyone can achieve that body that we see on a magazine cover if they do enough sit-ups? That six-pack abdomen is a symbol for us today in America as total self mastery and control. So when people are standing there with that abdomen, they are showing complete power over their own bodies. Does everyone have that same power? That’s where it turns into a moral question. To me, as a cultural historian, that’s what makes food so fascinating. You can never sort of stop it and pin it down.
How does the American diet compare to diets across the world? As the American diet influences the world, are they seeing the same rise in illness and obesity?
LACOMBE: I think that we mistake diet for recipes. So the American diet, in terms of recipes, is not going to conquer these other, regional and local, food habits. But the American food system, a way of producing and distributing food, has a logic that is built from capital. That if you’re going to put fresh spinach in every one of your 5,000 supermarkets, you need and industrial-scale growth. That food system is going to become more and more prevalent. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter what the recipe is, because you’re going to be eating the same mass-produced food…The more you go into the world of mass produced, mass distributed—the two go together. We want to go to a Trader Joe’s anywhere in America and buy asparagus any day of the year, but we don’t understand that we can’t necessarily do that in a sustainable way. But capitalism will give you that. The more the world goes in that direction, with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, feedlot animal slaughtering and the rest, it doesn’t matter whether you’re making curry or lentils or hamburgers because you’re eating the same toxic stuff.
LONDON: It’s a systemic problem that we’re dealing with that unfortunately we don’t have much control over. We don’t have much control over what we’re eating because it all comes from the same system, it’s produced the same way and has a lot of the same problems. Our agri-food industry is very efficient and it affects us at a systemic level, no matter what culture we’re from.
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