Traditional family structures and slimming diets
Anthropologists are interested in the social relationships around foodways—a person doesn’t just sit down with just ‘anybody’ to eat. Also those who cooked and prepared the food are part of this structured process. What are the table manners agreed upon within each family or group? The ideal British ‘proper meal’ a decade ago would have been prepared from fresh ingredients (meat, potatoes, vegetables and gravy) and served hot. It would have been ideally seen as a family occasion, prepared by the woman-wife-mother for her husband and children and eaten by the whole family. Ideally, again, family members eat together around a table making pleasant conversation. The ‘proper meal’ symbolizes the ‘proper family’ - without conflict and enjoying each other’s company - and showing the generational and gender hierarchy. The woman would be the principle ‘servant’ who often bows to the whims of husband and family that dictate the contents and preparation of the meal.
Abandoning slimming diets for family reasons
It’s easy to understand how someone who goes on a diet in such a social context strains the ‘proper family’ structure. A teen or the father - even the mother herself - might decide to diet but they very often find themselves strongly solicited to eat ‘as usual’, almost as if dieting is a betrayal to the survival of the ‘family’.
Cognitive psychologist Judith Beck (Diet for Life 2010) devotes several sections to the issue of food refusal at special occasions (even her daughter’s wedding cake) and especially within the family. For example, if you are a mother, ‘ask your family members to help prepare, serve and clean up’. Indeed it takes no less than family re-organisation in some cases. ‘If you’re tempted to nibble as you store leftovers, ask family members to plate their food and then store the leftovers before you eat.’ How many tasks can be reasonably re-learned by all the others in the family? It’s easy to understand why many diets are abandoned ‘for family reasons’.
Dieting and society pressures
Socially it’s hard to ‘just say no’ to food in many contexts—professional events, celebrations, even the Sunday dinner—keep up the pressure. Dieting is also knee-deep in moral and class judgments: We often hear cheap fast-food vilified when higher calorie Starbucks drinks are rarely blamed for poor nutrition. If the neighbour watches too much TV he’s a couch potato, getting fat; but if our child sits around reading or studying we don’t accuse them of laziness that leads to obesity.
Culture and diet
The effect of different cultural diets on health
Slimming and—especially—remaining slim in our culture can be extremely challenging. The same foods that make us fat are the same foods that cause heart disease and diabetes and cancer — the diseases associated with obesity. These foods were absent from human diets during the 2.5 million years of evolution leading up to the agricultural ‘revolution’ about 10,000 years ago. We’re poorly adapted to dealing with refined foods such as easily digestible starches, refined carbs like white flour and sugars. When we remove these foods from our diets, we get healthier. Insulin levels come down and with them a host of metabolic disturbances normalise.
Culturally no ethnic group or country is immune to disease today. Diets vary widely throughout the world--India has one of the largest populations of vegetarians in the world, and they also have high rates of heart disease and diabetes. Conversely the French consumehigh volumes of fat (yes even saturated fat), and the Inuit of Arctic regions and the Masai of Africa get most of their caloric intake from animal protein and fat, and yet they all have low rates of heart disease and diabetes.
In 1906, Dr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a young Harvard anthropology teacher later became famous for crossing the Arctic alone and living off the land with the Eskimos. For years he thrived on a diet of fish and meat, with virtually no vegetables, and came to believe the high protein approach to eating was the healthiest for humans. Yet as a non-medical practitioner, his writings on the subject were ignored.
Later he and a colleague were the objects of a supervised study on a high-protein ‘deprivation’ diet for a year: They only ate one kg of meat per day: 79% fat, 19% protein, 2% carbs; they remained perfectly healthy with only a slight weight loss and improved blood pressure, no vitamin or mineral deficiencies. The issue of calcium was especially notable--they consumed just a quarter of the calcium usually found in mixed diets, and the acidity of the meat supposedly depletes calcium!
This is part one of a two-part article. To read part two, click here.
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