The biology of social justice

I am not one to religiously follow the latest in nutrition or obesity research -- I take these kinds of things with a very large grain of salt -- but I was pleasantly surprised to find a great podcast produced by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Today I listened to an interview with Elizabeth Goodman, a pediatrician who studies the social factors surrounding obesity, such as poverty, social exclusion, racism, and chronic stress. What I loved about her approach was her recognition that weight goes much further than mere biology: it is not only what you put into your body, or how you use it, but the environment that you grow up in that influences your ability to make choices about your body. Dr. Goodman talked about obesity and the "biology of social justice," meaning that behind the fact that obesity is rising in the U.S., obesity tends to happen to people in position of social exclusion and stress -- that is, to the poor, the less-educated, the oppressed. Conventional approaches to obesity prevention, she says, focus on "educating" the public -- and especially those at risk -- with the assumption that knowledge is sufficient to lead to behavioral change. In the case of people who are at risk for obesity because of social factors, however (e.g. having no money for high-quality foods; having no leisure time because of working multiple jobs; living in neighbors where recreational space is limited or where it is dangerous to be outdoors; etc.), such messages can lead to feelings of guilt and further stress. That is, if you are already leading a life of poverty and stress, being told that you need to eat better is probably not enough: you also need to be in a situation that allows you to eat better, such as being able to afford produce, living near a well-stocked supermarket, having access to green spaces, etc. Without such conditions, telling someone to "eat less fat" or "eat more whole grains" is laughable, and may even be counterproductive in that it is likely to induce feelings of guilt and stress.

I liked this podcast because, in my quest to understand my own experience with an eating disorder, I often find it useful to approach food and eating from other perspectives. The current crisis in food prices interests me, as do environmental issues surrounding agricultural practices. I like putting food in a larger context, because by doing so I am able to make connections that I would not normally see. For example: although I am not a disadvantaged American struggling to put food on the table, I can appreciate the importance of our surroundings on the food choices that we make. I remember how overwhelming it was in college to have to eat in a cafeteria every day, where food was poor in quality and (too) abundant: every meal was a test for me of whether or not I would eat "well" (i.e. restrict what I ate) or binge (i.e. have one of each kind of dessert offered). Once I got away from the cafeteria environment, however, I had a much easier time eating appropriate portions. Similarly, soon after I developed a gluten sensitivity, I moved to China for several months, and found it much less effort to plan meals in a culture that ate so much rice, and so little wheat. These are example of the environment playing a role in what I ate, and I am sure that I could come up with more examples, as you probably could as well.

When I listen to researchers like Dr. Goodman, I am heartened to learn that there are scientists who are very conscientiously engaging in research related to eating disorders without falling into some of the traps that the nutrition world often unknowingly sets out for us, such as instilling in us a fear of obesity without a recognition of the role that fats play in a healthy diet, or failing to mention that the psychological impacts of an eating disorder can be far more devastating than carrying an extra BMI point or two.

Where do you get your sources of nutritional or health information? How do you feel about the sources that you turn to? Do they make you anxious, smug, or merely curious? I'd like to know.


Gaining Back My Life said...

Right now I am pretty reliant on my dietician for all sources nutritional. I should make more of an effort, maybe then I'd be encouraged to go along and make the right choices.

Ai Lu said...

Well, a dietician sounds like a very good source of nutritional information! And don't worry about not making an effort to find information yourself -- I find that so much of what is out there is questionable at best, and heavily slanted towards helping people lose weight (not ideal for people with EDs).