HIST 410: Week 5

Scientific and Quantified Eating

There has been no bigger shift in dietary advice than a shift to understanding health and what we eat in terms of numbers, averages, and scales. This week examines some of the earliest developments in quantification of dietary knowledge and advice. Of course we confront the implications of this paradigm shift each day as we see nutritional information labels, scales, and watch-like devices that count our number of steps each day.

Things to keep in mind this week

Draw connections between the emerging mechanistic body of the 1700s and the morality of diet in the early 1800s with the development of quantified nutrition in the mid to late 1800s.

This week continues to build on the mechanistic ideas about the body we saw in Cheyne; we’re also continuing the moral component that we saw in Graham, except that dietary advice is no longer justified through philosophy of natural diet (or religious precepts), but through quantified nutrition. On page 56, Mudry notes that: “Distinguishing between good and bad food required an understanding of the scientific composition of various foods, the nutrients they furnished to the human body, and calculating a cost/nutrient ratio for each.” The phrase “good and bad” food is of course not just a judgment about the food, but the people who consume it.

Critically evaluate unintended consequences of quantified nutritional research

While there are obvious advantages to quantifying nutritional research, we should think also about unintended consequences. One of these is an unhealthy obsession with counting calories or other facets of nutrition, as many of you have noted. Another one is the fact that stuff we can’t quantify (like enjoying food) gets separated from the discourse about diet and health (and gives rise to things like food guilt). As a result, some ways of thinking about diet that might actually be extremely useful and important get sidelined in favor of knowledge that is maybe less useful but far more measurable.

We’ll read about how immigrants to the U.S. were especially targeted by dietary reformers in the early 20th century. An important social phenomenon to keep in mind is how closely food choice and cultural identity are related. It’s a bit jarring to see how immigrants’ diets were criticized ostensibly on nutritional grounds, but really because some reformers (usually upper middle class white folk) thought all the different people and customs coming into the U.S. would be socially and culturally destructive. It’s alarming (and depressing) to think about what food (or culture) in the U.S. would look like if immigrants weren’t smart enough to ignore such advice about how to “eat right”.

Recognize the how knowledge of the invisible continued to shape the nature of medical expertise

The popularization of the calorie in the late 19th and early 20th centuries parallels the popularization of germ theory (which we don’t really get into). Note here THE IMPORTANCE OF THE INVISIBLE. You can’t be a respected physicians without understanding invisible germs; you can’t be a respected nutritionist (although the actual discipline comes later) without knowing about calories (and later vitamins, etc). If this doesn’t remind you of Cheyne, you should go back and review. You can see this happening also in the hospital efficiency movement (Mudry, 54–55).

Mon 9/14

  • Jessica Mudry, “Quantifying an American Eater” Food, Culture & Society 9.1 (2006): 49–67.

Prompt question: On p. 64 Mudry concludes that “after the development of the science of nutrition, moral terms like “good” and “bad” became enumerated and objectified in discussions of food.”” To what extent are you convinced by her argument and evidence? The most important aspect of your reply is the ARGUMENT and EVIDENCE that YOU PROVIDE.

Wed 9/16

  • Charlotte Biltekoff, Eating Right in America, Chapter 2: Scientific Moralization, 13–44.

Prompt question: Today we get another look at food reformers in the early 20th century, particularly Ellen Richards, with an emphasis on the links between diet and morality. Describe the link between home economics, nutrition, and immigration. How and why did these come to intersect as according to Biltekoff (and Mudry)?

Fri 9/18

  • Wilbur O. Atwater, “The Chemistry of Food and Nutrition: The Composition of Our Bodies and Our Food,” Century Illustrated Magazine, 34 (May 1887): 59–74. Our goal with this primary source is to understand the tone of this work so often referenced in our readings this week. Skim but don’t totally skip the science lesson details. Think about:
    • How does article reflect larger scientific currents?
    • What’s the point of all the science detail?
    • How/why does metaphor play such a prominent role in his explanations?