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The socio-cultural construction of diets

In the previous section, I have dealt with the factors affecting the desirability and intake of particular foods from sensory and cultural symbolic perspectives, and have mentioned only in passing the dietary structures into which such foods are integrated. This section will deal briefly with the two major dimensions of dietary construction meal patterns and rules for food sharing and the way anthropologists study them.

Dietary Structure

Beyond individual factors in food selection, people also structure consumption in terms of dietary patterns. These include ordinary daily rounds of meals and snacks, as well as annual cycles of feasts and fast days, which in combination with classifications of individual foods comprise the group's "food habits." How often one eats, the times of day or night that one eats, the kinds of food one eats in general and on each eating occasion, and with whom one eats are ways of communicating information about one's own social and cultural identity and relationships with others. The "food code" - the kinds of foods (for instance, cooked versus uncooked) one consumes at particular times of the day - and the individuals one invites to share each repast are basic to deciphering the cultural rules of etiquette, identity, and membership in social groups (Douglas, 1972). They provide an additional key to criteria for food selection and individual nutrition.

Food patterns are constructed by encoding foods according to their proper place in the diet. Foods may be classified as "meal items" including staples such as cereal grains, tubers, and plantains; "relishes" (i.e. preparations eaten along with staples) and "condiments" such as salt, mineral earths, and chili peppers; or as categories appropriate to particular meals, such as "toast" for breakfast and "meat" and "potatoes" for dinner foods in American society (Lewin, 1943). Alternatively, they may be deemed "snack foods," i.e. those that are "uncooked" and consumed without the major cooked staple or eaten outside of the regular meal settings. Or, certain dishes may be considered as special foods eaten only at feasts or as famine food consumed only if other more preferred foods are unavailable.

Studies in the "foodways" of different groups classify foods into "core," "secondary core" ("specialty") and "peripheral" ("alternative") items in order to describe the staple versus more variable elements of cultural diets (Passin and Bennett, 1943). Meal planning may also be studied according to folk categories such as the Italian-American mode of varying in meals the basic elements of "pasta" and "gravy" (Theophano, 1982; Curtis, 1983).

What constitutes a "meal," as opposed to a "snack," is defined in every culture, and this definition determines what foods are appropriate at different times of the day. In Malaysia, for example, cooked rice defines a "meal"; all food eaten without cooked rice is defined as a "snack." For those recording dietary intake, it is useful to realize that "snack" foods may not be listed in recall surveys because they may not be considered "real foods." Also, foods considered inferior and used only in times of scarcity or those consumed ordinarily only by infants or foraging youngsters may go unreported even if they are part of dietary intake of the young or of adults.

How many meals are prepared and their timing during a day is also culturally determined. The number, timing, structure, and contents of meals may be relatively fixed, as in upper-class British society (Douglas, 1972), or the number of meals and ingredients may vary throughout the year according to seasonal resources and festivities. Many African horticultural societies adjust downward from two meals to one meal a day and rely on more or less palatable wild foods as harvest stores are depleted. Rationing for the purpose of extending limited resources is common in most cultures without adequate surplus food supplies, although the timing of such rationing and the mechanisms by which people compute how much food to allow for daily meals has not been carefully studied.

If firewood or other fuel supplies are short and/or expensive, and if the food provider-preparer has other work responsibilities, the number of meals defined as "cooked food" may be restricted. Employment or school schedules also affect how work or meals structure the day in modern industrialized societies. Rotenberg (1981) analysed how changing work schedules in post-Second World War Viennese society caused a shift from five to three meals a day as well as the increased consumption of convenience (prepared) foods.

Cultural group membership may also be marked by the festival periods of feasting and fasting that celebrate group cohesion. Even ordinary food patterns, such as what constitutes appropriate meal and snack foods, may mark cultural (ethnic) group membership, for example in the case of American Poles and Blacks (Kolasa, 1978; Jerome, 1979). Factors of income levels, perceived prestige values, and availability of fresh foods and other ingredients in different cultural contexts also affect continuities in ethnic dietary structure, as does the ongoing presence of a social group that shares such ethnic foodways.

In addition to examining multiple socio-cultural determinants of food selection and dietary construction, nutritionists have tried to quantify qualitative aspects of dietary patterns and relate them to nutritional content and adequacy of diets. "Food diversity indices" or "dietary complexity" scores that calculate the numbers of different food items consumed by individuals or households over a given period of time, for example, have been used as surrogate measures of the nutritional adequacy of diets (Schorr et al., 1972; Romero de Gwynn and Sanjur, 1974; Sanjur and Romero, 1975; Caliendo et al., 1976). The measures are even more accurate predictors, particularly of infants' and children's nutritional status, when certain protein factors, like milk, are weighted (Romero de Gwynn and Sanjur, 1974).

Food diversity indices may also be useful for understanding why, in certain cultural contexts, children undereat and suffer malnutrition in spite of apparently adequate supplies of the staple grain or tuber. Sometimes malnutrition occurs because children's diets are too boring as well as too bulky (Wilson and Wilson, 1971; Gershoff et al., 1977). Food diversity indices may also be developed as a tool to monitor how availability of variety influences food choices and, therefore, levels of consumption of those who overeat

As yet, we have no inkling of the interactions between dietary variety, relative perceptions, and affective values of and intakes of particular foods, especially those that are sweet and fatty. This may be a promising area for research aimed at control of overeating (Drewnowski and Greenwood, 1983). In modern industrial societies, where people are exposed to very large amounts and very great varieties of foods, we need to have new ways to control intake, since the satiety that accompanies habitual exposure to a very monotonous diet is absent (Mead, 1964). Analysis of factors such as novelty, satiety, and complexity can also contribute to studies of food acceptance and preference (Koster, 1981).

Dietary complexity might also be used to roughly screen households for malnutrition within a poor community where increased complexity indicates a diet with greater variety and, consequently, superior nutritional value. DeWalt et al. (1979), by contrast, used food complexity scores as one of several ways to compare diets of rich and poor, both qualitatively and nutritionally, in a Mexican community. Particular aspects of dietary complexity, such as demand for a minimum level of variety or for a certain number of "fatty" meal components at different socio-economic levels, might be worked into linear programming models of dietary construction (Caravan, 1976). However, for purposes of anticipating nutritional outcome, rules of community food redistribution and intra-household distribution of food may be more significant.

Social Factors in Diet Selection

Food distribution and sharing are discussed at length in the chapter by J. Goode in this volume. At the group level, food-sharing rules are one of the means by which people in hunting and gathering and horticultural societies maintain co-operation for other pursuits. Food-sharing rules are also one of the ways to assure systematic distribution of environmental resources from fortunate to less fortunate groups and individuals. Wiessner (1981), for example, has shown how !Kung San continue to operate partnerships that include food exchange or opportunities for work even under the conditions of the substantially changed cultural and economic environments of government-settled communities.

Even in complex societies, food sharing has its political and nutritional dimensions, as in the institutionalized food-sharing that goes on during feasting. Diskin (1978) and Greenberg (1981) have suggested that high-quality protein and vitamin-rich foods distributed during the cycles of festivals in the rural Mexican villages they studied may make substantial contributions to the diets of poor participants. Furthermore, the timing of the festivals seems to have been such that food distribution took place during periods when the population was most in need of protein and nutrients. Future studies on the question of the importance of food sharing might try to account for: (1) how much and what kinds of foods are prepared; (2) who receives the food (what is their socio-economic status); (3) what percentage of people of a particular socio-economic status are served for how many days per year, especially during the lean season, when seasonal hunger is a problem; and (4) how these customs are attenuated in (a) times of scarcity or (b) times of socio-economic change.

A related set of questions is concerned with what rules exist for food sharing under conditions of dearth. Various ethnographic cases indicate that, as people confront potential starvation conditions, they avoid their obligations to share by hiding and hoarding food. Most hospitality obligations are triggered when food is available. During famines, people may lie about their food supply, saying that they have nothing to offer, but later they eat alone (Richards, 1939; Holmberg, 1950). Generosity may shrink to immediate, instead of extended, kin networks (Firth, 1959; Dirks, 1978). Or, food sharing may be eliminated altogether, even that usually found between close kin such as parents and young children (Turnbull, 1972). Probably observation is the only certain way to collect information on such questions; yet in situations of dearth, the anthropologist or nutritionist also faces an ethical dilemma of "just watching" while people go hungry. Usually under such conditions, co-operation in social relations within the society will also decrease. Brady and Laughlin (1978) have suggested that the extent of working together in social relations can be quantified under different conditions of resource availability, although it may be difficult to arrive at quantified values for both resources and co-operation that will provide meaningful cross-cultural comparisons.

Finally, Douglas and Gross (1981) have offered a method for combining quantitative measures of the rules of social relations and structuredness in diet. They hope, in the long run, to be able to quantify both society and diet to show how disruption of social relations (social breakdown) leads to regular changes in social nutritional systems (aspects of dietary complexity).

Each of the foregoing studies suggests additional ways to conceptualize and quantify the factors in social organizations that contribute to nutritional well-being. Such factors are rarely captured by correlations of single social or cultural factors with nutritional status, since the nutritional well-being of individuals is the result of the interaction of numerous factors operating within the household and the community, such as the social organization of food production and food preparation, rules for distribution of food within the household, and regulations for eating and exchange with members of other households. Only by considering such social factors, in combination with other cultural and psychological aspects of food habits and environmental factors impinging on health status, will a more accurate picture of the sources of malnutrition be drawn.

Summary and conclusions

This chapter has reviewed the factors and structures that anthropologists, as well as other social scientists and nutritionists, have identified as affecting food selection, food preferences, and dietary intakes. There is always the problem in describing such dietary features of further identifying the proper level at which to address an investigation. Sensory and cultural symbolic factors are usually arrived at by interviewing and observing individuals, and then describing and quantifying their responses as a cultural or community description, within which one may also describe variations. Conversely, there is the problem of working backwards from data on dietary intake or "cultural rules" to individual reasons for choosing to eat particular foods in particular patterns. Anthropological research allows us to decipher the structure of meals and, more generally, diets, and discuss the attributes of foods that are selected within them. But there have been few studies, none of them convincing, that demonstrate the relative weight of the different factors operating in the food choices of individuals, and how these might lead to predictions of consumption patterns at the community level, checked by actual observations or recall of dietary intakes.

We are left, then, with a compendium of methodologies by which to measure the economic, social symbolic, perceived nutritional, and other factors that enter into dietary construction and selection of individual foods. But to elucidate the relative weighting in food choices, we must rely on largely anecdotal information, culled from observations of dietary intakes in conjunction with conversations of people explaining why they chose the foods they did. As indicated in the sections above, the greatest weight in situations of limited food or monetary resources seems to be the cost various foods, in conjunction with their perceived values as filling.

Probably the best natural settings in which to study such dietary decision-making would be those in which new foods, especially new staple starches, are being introduced. For example, where there has been an attempt to introduce a new variety of grain or a different species similar to the old from the scientist's perspective, important questions may be the relative weights people put on traditional concepts of "human food" versus "animal food" (in some cases, the traditional designation of the new introduction) the taste, colour, and texture of the two variables, and their relative costs per unit.

Only through such investigations, combining interviews on the cultural qualities attributed to different foods and observations of their actual consumption, will nutritionists and anthropologists be able to ascertain the relative weighting of factors that contribute to food selection in particular cultural cases. As suggested above, it is probably best to proceed in such an analysis by first identifying the major local categories of foods and food expenditures, e.g. the major staple grain or tuber, the principal sauces or relishes, and the spices and condiments that may form part of them or be extra purchases, and then examine the inter-substitutions of different items within such categories, and the relative weighting (in caloric intake and cost) between such categories in different households within a community and between communities.

Such studies in the short and long term can certainly contribute to our understanding of the effects of advertising and promotions on consumption of particular adult foods and infant formula foods, and our ability to predict the possible impact of changing food-price policy by governments. Both the theoretical and applied studies of socio-cultural factors in human food selection will benefit by such advances in research.


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Appendix 1. Obesity and cultural weight valuations (A variation on the method suggested by Massara, 1980)

  1. Measure medically defined obesity among males and females in your sample by height/weight and triceps skin-fold methods.
  2. In consultation with medical weight specialists, construct a series of six male and six female photographs or drawings of individuals in different age classes (e.g. toddler, child, adolescent, adult) with body types typical for the community. For each gender series, one should represent one body type judged medically to be "normal" body weight; one body type 10-20 per cent below normal weight; and four body types varying degrees (20-100 per cent) above normal (medical valuation) weight. (One method for arriving at a standardized photo test is to use photographs that have been varied systematically by means of an anamorphic lens.) To assure reliability of this medical valuation standard, three specialists should be interviewed to arrive at a consensus.
  3. Use the photos or drawings to elicit classifications of body size as a basis for determining cultural definitions of "low," "normal," and "excessive" weight for each age/gender class. Hand respondents one photo in a series at a time and ask him or her to select the descriptor that best describes the body type: (1) "too thin," (2) "thin," (3) "regular," (4) "heavy,'' (5) "plump," (6) "too heavy." These classifiers, in the local dialect, should be arrived at after initial interviews establishing the verbal concepts and categories used to describe body weight.
  4. Calculate prevalence of medically defined obesity (from step 1) by gender and age class.
  5. Calculate culturally defined obesity (from step 3) by gender and age class, as defined by respondents of different gender and age classes.
  6. Compare cultural and medical valuations of appropriate, low. and excessive weight, as these might contribute to differential distributions of obesity among men and women at various stages in the lifecycle.

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