Profs deride ‘weight loss’ as a ‘Western value’

Two professors argue in a newly published anthology on “feminist nutrition” that “athletic performance” and “longevity” are simply “Western values.” 

Critical Nutrition: Critical and Feminist Perspectives on Bodily Nutrition”—one of 16 chapters in the book Food & Place: A Critical Exploration—was written by Temple University professor Allison Hayes-Conroy and her sister, Jessica Hayes-Conroy, who teaches a “Feminist Health” class at a small college in Upstate New York. 

In the chapter, the Hayes-Conroy sisters worry that mainstream nutrition science rests upon elite, white, and educated modes of thinking, and that the values mainstream nutrition promotes are “Western values.” 

Calls for healthy eating “remain embedded in contemporary culture and politics,” the Hayes-Conroys assert. “Countless recent studies offer insight into weight loss, longevity, or athletic performance—all predominant Western values.” 

[RELATED: UW-Stout students must appreciate ‘social differences’ to graduate]

They also argue that nutrition is not a “politically neutral science,” saying the concept of “critical nutrition” is predicated on the belief that “calls for healthy eating are never purely factual.”

“As we write this, a strawberry boycott is ongoing, protesting the treatment of Driscoll farmworkers, they note. “And yet it is rare, in the myriad calls for eating fresh fruits and vegetables, to see strikes and boycotts mentioned in the same breath as ‘healthy.’”

During World War II, they add, nutritional advice revolved around encouraging people to eat “foods that would give workers stamina, and thus help win the war,” whereas during preceding decades “eating well” was understood to mean “eating economically and knowing exactly how many calories different bodies needed, based on occupation, gender, age, and more.”

Those examples show that “healthy eating was tied to particular cultural beliefs and social identity—it was never a politically neutral science,” they assert, going onto suggest that nutrition science is a regime of control that prioritizes different cultures over others. 

They are particularly concerned that while “the production of scientific knowledge about nutrition is still heavily influenced by particular cultural beliefs, funding streams, lobbying advocates, and food industries,” the field of nutrition science has nonetheless been uncritically embraced as an altruistic ally by both experts and the general public.

”When scientific claims help to legitimize particular cultural beliefs as ‘facts’ rather than viewpoints, they are easily accepted,” they write. “Facts garner attention, and are highly marketable.”

[RELATED: Profs claim scientific objectivity reinforces ‘whiteness’]

Notably, both sisters hold their advanced degrees in geography, but list critical nutrition studies among their primary research interests, though neither responded to email inquiries from Campus Reform seeking elaboration.

They conclude their chapter by urging others to explore the possibility of “doing nutrition differently,” suggesting several possible approaches.

First, is “radical non-judgement,” which means “letting go of the belief that there is one right way to eat well, and instead accepting that bodily nourishment is complex—scientifically, culturally, and socially.” 

Another strategy could involve embracing a “happy contradiction,” which refers to the “understanding that all ideas about food are culturally specific, and can therefore sometimes be in contradiction,” they write. 

Ultimately, the sisters urge a paradigm-shift away from mainstream nutrition and toward “critical nutrition,” saying that doing so could allow for new insights and ways of approaching issues including obesity, fatness, laziness, and much else. 

The chapter on “Critical Nutrition” was a contribution to Food & Place: A Critical Exploration, which also explores issues such as how farmers markets are “spaces of whiteness,” how GMOs impact rural farmers, and how immigrants use food to help create a sense of community. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen