3/27/2014 CSOC808, Module3- Topics andLearning Objectives
Topics and Learning Objectives
The social construction of “healthy eating” and healthy eating discourse
Differential access to healthy foods based on income and neighbourhood
Different ideas about healthy eating and body type based on ethno-racial background and age
The influence of employment and demographics on healthy eating
By the end of this module, you should be able to:
Define discourse and explain how it relates to notions of healthy eating.
Describe how healthy eating motivations differ based on age and ethno-racial background.
Explain the notion of a “food desert.”
Understand how employment and demographics relate to eating habits.
Move beyond an individualistic understanding of healthy eating and list the social structures that
influence healthy diets.
Critical Perspectives in Food Studies, Chapter 9
Szabo, M. (2011). The challenges of “re-engaging with food”: connecting employment, household
patterns and gender relations to convenience food consumption in North America. Food, Culture &
Society, 14(4), 54–566.
When Canadians are asked about healthy eating, they often refer to Canada’s Food Guide. It is no wonder,
since children learn about this guide in school and it is promoted widely by the Canadian government. We may
even take it to represent facts about nutrition and how to eat well.
However, the guide has changed significantly over the years. Take a look at this Health Canada web page,
where you can find different versions of the guide from 1942 to 1992. Do you notice any differences between
the guides in terms of suggestions for healthy eating?
You might have noticed, for example, that in 1944, the guide emphasizes that bread be eaten “with butter.”
But in later years, butter is not mentioned and “low-fat” milk products are promoted instead. These differences
suggest that there are no absolute facts about healthy eating, only “discourses” that change over time and
place. On the next page, we’ll begin our discussion by looking at the idea of “discourse.”
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Figure 3.1: The health status of butter has been the subject of debate over the years.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Meanos, 2006
The Social Construction of Healthy Eating: Introduction
Healthy Eating as a Discourse
In Chapter 9 of the text, Beagan and Chapman speak about healthy eating as a discourse. This is the same
as saying that ideas about healthy eating are socially constructed. What does this mean? Let’s start with a
Discourse is a way “of understanding a phenomenon or an issue that circulates through a society and is
enacted through everyday practices” (Koc et al., p. 383).
From this general definition, we can say that:
Healthy eating discourse is a particular way of understanding healthy eating that circulates through
society and is reproduced (and sometimes resisted) through people’s eating practices.
It’s important to remember that discourses are time and place specific.
To say that healthy eating is a socially constructed discourse means that there are no absolute facts or truths
about what kind of diet is best for our health. Rather, certain ideas get labelled as “facts” or “truths” in certain
places and times. Going back to our Canada’s Food Guide example, eating butter was encouraged in the
1940s but not so much in later years. In fact, as there began to be worries about the health effects of fats in
our diet, lower-fat milk products were promoted over butter. So, is butter healthy or unhealthy? For
sociologists, there is no clear answer to this. What we can say is that, in the healthy eating discourse of the
1940s, butter was seen to be healthy, but in more recent healthy eating discourse, there is some debate
about whether and how much butter is healthy.
The proliferation of discourses
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How do discourses come to be, and how do they circulate in society at a particular time and place? Beagan
and Chapman discuss this issue. Do you remember? (Go back to your reading notes, if necessary.)
1. Discourses, such health discourses, are created and influenced by:
a. Government directives
b. The media (and popular culture)
c. Interactions between individuals
d. All of the above
Verify Answer Uncheck All
To elaborate, discourses are created in a particular time period in a particular society by people who are
thought to be experts, and then disseminated by government, media, and popular culture. Then they are
further circulated in conversations between friends and family and elsewhere, such as between doctors and
patients. They are also reinforced through people’s actions and behaviours.
It is also important to remember that there is usually more than one discourse about an issue that circulate in
a particular society at the same time. These discourses compete with each other for acceptance, each touting
itself as the "truth." Scholars tend to label discourses that are most popular in a society (believed by the
majority of people) as “mainstream” and discourses that are less popular (accepted by a smaller number of
people) as “alternative.”
In the next section, we’ll look at examples of these through an examination of competing discourses about
what makes up a healthy diet in North America.
Healthy Eating Discourses in Vancouver
As we talked about in the last section, and as you probably know from experience, there are competing
discourses about healthy eating in our society.
Beagan and Chapman discovered some of these different discourses in their interviews with Vancouverites
and Haligonians. The scholars found three types of healthy eating discourses, which they labelled
“mainstream,” “traditional,” “alternative,” and “complementary/ethical.” Do you remember what each of these
discourses emphasized as key to a healthy diet? (Try to remember, but go back to your notes if necessary.)
Based on the reading, match each type of discourse to its explanation.
Discourse Type and Explanation
Beagan and Chapman also noticed in their Vancouver and Halifax interviews that there was a pattern in terms
of who tended to adhere to which of these discourses.
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Based on the reading, match each type of discourse to the ethno-cultural group that tended to adhere to it.
Discourse type and Ethno-cultural Group
It’s important to point out that Beagan and Chapman do not suggest that any of the discourses
they discovered were more correct or better than the others. The mainstream discourse is more
popular, but this does not mean it is more correct. For sociologists, all of the discourses are
socially constructed and worthy of scrutiny.
Now think about your own ideas about healthy eating.
Which of these three discourses most closely represents your
own thinking and habits? If you choose “other”, share what this
“other” is on the Class Discussion Board.
Nutritionism: From Food to Nutrients
You probably noticed in the Warm Up to this module that Health Canada’s Food Guide has become more and
more complex over the years. This aligns with our shifting thoughts about food. While in the earlier decades of
the 20th century we thought of meals as made up of different types of foods–vegetables, meat, dairy
products, etc.–in recent decades, we tend to think of meals as made up of different nutritional components–
calories, fat, vitamins, etc. Most recently, we have gotten even more complex, talking about things like
antioxidants, trans fats, and phytochemicals.
Some food activists, such as food journalist Michael Pollan, argue that this shift in food discourse has actually
been harmful to our health. While we now know more about the components of our food, much of this
information is confusing, he claims (Pollan, 2008). Also, it takes quite a bit of education and effort to
understand and calculate the nutrients in all of the foods we want to eat or avoid. This type of critique has led
to the use of the term nutritionism.
What is nutritionism?
Nutritionism: “a paradigm that reduces the value and benefits of food to its nutrients, assuming that we
eat only to promote physical health” (Koc et al., p. 387). This term is usually used by critics of this
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Figure 3.1: A view of food and eating from a nutritionism paradigm.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Boumphreyfr, 2009
What’s wrong with thinking about food only in terms of its nutrients and how it promotes or doesn’t promote
What do you think? Take a minute to think about it. Then click to
check what scholars and activists argue.
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Figure 3.2: Eating is not only about nutrients: it can be about family, pleasure, community, and
Source: Wikimedia Commons, National Cancer Institute, 2007
From Nutritionism to Eating "Real" Food
Food journalist Michael Pollan is one of the most vocal opponents of nutritionism, especially in his two
books In Defense of Food and Food Rules. He argues that because of nutritionism, food information is now
too confusing and cumbersome for people to realistically consider it for their diets. He suggests that eating
healthy is, in fact, much easier than nutrition experts make it seem. He then lists a number of simple, non-
scientific rules for eating well.
Take a look at this summary of some of Michael Pollan's Food Rules, created by an anonymous graphic artist.
Think about incorporating these rules into your own life. How easy would it be? Can you think of any rules that
might be difficult to incorporate? Why? Jot down a few notes and keep them handy for the section below.
Healthy eating as an individual responsibility
Let’s take Rule #1: “Don’t buy anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Are there any
reasons this rule might be difficult to follow? What if your school or workplace has only highly processed foods
on offer? What if you have a limited income, and the only food retailers within reasonable distance from your
home are convenience stores or fast food restaurants?
Now consider Rule #10: “Look to farmer’s markets for the majority of your food and snacks.” What if there are
no farmers' markets in your neighbourhood or if they only sell one day a week? What if the market food is too
expensive for your budget?
The point is that there are many factors beyond an individual’s control that can affect the healthiness of their
diet. For this reason, Pollan has been criticized by food scholars for having an overly individualistic focus
(Guthman, 2007). These scholars suggest that there are larger structural factors that need to be considered
in discussions of healthy diets. We turn to these factors in the next section.
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Healthy Food Access and Affordability
Have you ever noticed price differences between foods we consider healthy and those we consider
unhealthy? At Tim Horton's, for example, a donut is notably cheaper than yogurt and berries or a bagel with
This is not an anomaly. Studies have shown that healthier foods are more expensive than less healthy foods
on a per-calorie basis (Drewnowski et al., 2007). According to one study, a 2,000 calorie per-day diet would
cost about US$3.52 if it was made up of junk food versus US$36.32 if it was made up of more nutritious foods
(Parker-Pope, 2007). So for someone with a limited income, buying a whole meal from a fast food restaurant
might make more economic sense than buying a few vegetables from a farmers’ market.
There is also the issue of physical access to healthy foods. You encountered the term food desert in the
Beagan and Chapman reading for today. This is an important term to remember.
What are food deserts?
Typically, a neighbourhood is defined as a food desert if:
1. residents have to go more than 1 km to get to a grocery store
2. residents have limited access to a vehicle or public transportation (and have to walk or bike to go
You might think food deserts are only located in out-of-the-way areas, where there are few stores of any kind,
let alone grocery