History of Food, Diet, and Health

Fall 2016 • HIST 410
info | readings

Prof. Fred Gibbs (fwgibbs@unm.edu)
Mesa Vista Hall, 1077
Office Hours: M 10-11:30; W 11:30-1; almost anytime by appointment

Course Description

What constitutes healthy food? A healthy diet? A healthy body? Dietary regimens to maintain health—as well as what it means to be healthy—have remained preeminent medical questions ever since people had a choice about what to eat. Yet even today, medical understandings of diet and official dietary advice seems to change almost daily. This course explores how various cultural, scientific, and medical values have continually shaped our relationship to food, health, and diet since the 1700s.

Some guiding questions: How have medical authorities continually redefined what it means to be healthy and to eat a healthy diet? How and why have the perceived medical virtues of various foods changed over time? How much do food industries and lobbyists affect our understanding of healthy eating? How can the history of diet and health help us understand contemporary dietary advice?

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Understand the changing notion of diet and the constantly shifting relationship between diet and health in Western medicine.

  • Appreciate how attitudes about diet are not based on “objective” medical knowledge, but grow out of complex constellation of social, political, and cultural values.

  • Develop sensitivity to how different social and cultural populations approach food and health in vastly different terms, and how this might inform food, diet, and health policy decisions.

  • Sharpen critical thinking skills by evaluating online dietary advice while exposing its assumptions and putting it in historical perspective.

Work Requirements and Grading

  • Active and engaged participation Simply showing up to class counts for very little; I expect that you’ll attend most classes and actively participate in all activities. If you want a course where you can passively attend lectures and occasionally regurgitate information, this course is not for you. (30%)

  • You cannot make up missed classes and I will not summarize them for you via email. Please DO NOT email me asking what you missed or how to make it up (feel free to ask your class colleagues for notes). Medical emergencies beyond your control are the one exception to the attendance policy, and you should let me know about these ASAP.

  • I consider it extremely rude and disruptive to walk into class late, and it greatly aggravates me. Everyone makes mistakes, and I undertstand you might be (barely) late once or twice. Repeatedly being late, regardless of the reasons, will negatively impact your grade by a third to full letter grade.

  • You will produce 3 400-word reviews/critiques of some “publication” pertaining to food, health, and diet. These can be articles from a website, newspaper or magazine, a movie, science research article, historical scholarship, or whatever you like. These assignments will show that you’re able to apply the course discussion and activities in the real world (so to speak). If you are not pleased with your grade, you can revise and resubmit them within 1 week. You can read more about these on the critique writing guide. (30% total; 10% each)

  • Contribution to a collaborative digital resource on the history of fad diets. Check out this terrible summary, which is typical of fad diet histories. We will divide into small groups, and each will tackle a particular diet, looking more in depth how it was orginally conceived, promoted, researched, and so on, with the goal of providing historical context for that diet. We’ll plan this out more in class; several class sessions will be devoted to reviewing and critiquing each other’s work. Each person will contribute 600-800 word “essay”. (20%)

  • Your final “exam” is a 800-1000 word review essay that answers the question: “What is the use of history in understanding the relationship between food, diet, and health?” There is no “right” answer, obviously. The point is to show off the ways of thinking about diet and health that you’ve learned in the course, particularly with respect to the Student Learning Outcomes above. (20%)

Required Texts

  • Charlotte Biltekoff, Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health. Duke University Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-0822355595.

  • Marion Nestle, Food Politics. University of California Press, 2002 (10th ed., 2013). ISBN: 978-0520275966.

  • Gyorgy Scrinis, Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice. Columbia University Press, 2013 (repr. 2015). ISBN: 978-0231156578.

  • You will also need to subscribe to the course Zotero library to access assigned articles. This will be discussed on the first day of class. For reference, please see the instructions for doing this at fredgibbs.net/courses/etc/zotero.html. The URL for the group library is https://www.zotero.org/groups/642043/items, but you must have clicked on the link in your invitation to access the library!


View the Schedule of Readings