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


22: Introduction to the course, syllabus, and expectations.

24: Selections from Galen on Food and Diet: 1-8; 14-18; 68-84.

How did physicians like Galen conceive the notion of disease? According to Galen, how does diet fit into medical understandings of disease? How is his approach similar and different to modern approaches to diet? How would you describe his writing style? Does it seem strange for a physician?

26: Brian Cowan, “New Worlds and New Tastes,” 1-17.

This reading covers both foodways (kinds of foods, manners, etc.) as well as dietary concerns; feel free to skim the non-health bits as you come across them. They are interesting, but not our primary focus. Still, we should ask: why does cuisine get so much attention (particularly pp. 11-17)? In terms of diet and health, what’s different in the 1500s? Galen talked a little about the difference between food and drug (and we will talk more about that during class)–what’s the difference between food and drug in the Renaissance? Why is there no discussion of the unhealthiness of sugar?

Enlightened Diets

Reading Note: The below readings (through the 2nd) are updated from the original syllabus. For the mobidly curious, you can see what you missed in the Zotero library with J. Worth Estes, “The Medical Properties of Food.” Sorry for the late change, but it’s worth it! All new readings are in our Zotero library.

29: Ken Albala, “The Human Body,” 48-62; “Food,” 82-88; 91-104.

The PDF has considerably more than you need to read. For the specified page ranges, only read within entire sections. For instance: on page 62, read only up through the “Spirits” heading, and so on; some sections (like on p. 91) start near the bottom of the page [ = less reading!].

Where do you see overlap with Galen’s ideas? What do you see as the pros and cons for the Renaissance understanding of digestion? Why do drunk people crave salty foods? Why does the physicality of food matter so much if balancing the humours is so important? Aren’t they totally different systems? Is there a modern analog to the Renaissance “virtues” of certain foods as described in the reading?

31: Steven Shapin, “How to Eat like a Gentleman,” 21-48.

How are the kinds of sources examined in this reading different from what we’ve considered so far? How does the dietary advice differ? To what extent were plain and simple meals a dietary as opposed to a social concern? What did nationality have to do with dietary choices? How does grandmotherly expertise conflict with medical expertise? What did it mean to “live physically”? Why would anyone (not) want to? How does this idea connect with the Cowan reading from last Friday? “Is it so great a thing to be alive? “ How did the fact that the target audience was “gentlemen” matter to the reception of the advice? Do you see any vestiges of English gentlemanly dietary advice in modern American dietary advice? What do you consider the most important point(s) from the last section (much of which we will return to in various ways throughout the semester)?

2: George Cheyne, An Essay on Regimen,” i-xxiv.

Here’s our first excursion into a primary source without translation (making its eccentricities even more apparent). The language seems weird at first (and it is, compared to ours) but you get used to it after a few pages. How does Cheyne’s advice echo what we’ve been reading about? What is different? In either case, what are his primary concerns? To what extent do you see the moral component of diet that we began to talk about last time? Can anyone actually follow this kind of advice?

Dietary Expertise

5: NO CLASS (labor day)

Spend time finding something to critique for your first essay (due next Monday). Email with questions!

7: Steven Shapin, “Trusting George Cheyne,” 263-279.

This reading continues and focuses our previous attention to medical expertise and moral authority. We’ve already read and summarized (thanks to your hard work last Friday) Cheyne’s own medical writing, so please keep that in mind when reading more about Cheyne himself.

With respect to the “Gentleman” reading (from the same author as this article), I asked How did the fact that the target audience was “gentlemen” matter to the reception of the advice?) This was meant to prime us for thinking about common sense vs. expert advice that we’re reading about for today. Was this a new tension in the 1700s? How much do we still have this tension regarding modern dietary concerns? Part of the answer to this depends on what “common sense” is at a time. What was the typical layperson’s medical knowledge in the 1700s? And today? NOTE in particular: In dietetics … medicine pitched its tent on ground already densely occupied by moral common sense. What medical advice is carved on the Apollo’s temple at Delphi? How similar and different to modern dietary advice? What were common criticisms of 18th-century physicians? What does Shapin mean by “micromechanism” and “iatromechanical”? Where do these terms come from?

And the biggest question that links our two discussions this week: How did Cheyne establish his medical reputation? Think about how some of the sections from his text we read last week can help us answer this so far.

9: Shapin, “Trusting George Cheyne,” 279-297.

What kinds of advice did his patients get in their personal correspondence? To what extent were these reasonable? Was there any conflict with common sense? How different was public and private medical advice? How specifically did Cheyne appeal to morality in his letters with patients? How did his own physical condition matter? How prevelant was the “micromechanical” approach/advice we read about last time? What kinds of experience does Shapin discuss? What are the modern analogs?

19th-century Reformers

12: First Essay Due

Remember to review the critique writing guide.

Sylvester Graham and Cindy Lobel, “Sylvester Graham and Antebellum Diet Reform.” (recently added to the Zotero library) and also online, but sometimes restricted. Strangely, you can usually access this by Googling for it, and then clicking the link in the search results (but a direct link asks you to log in).

Focus on your essays! The short Lobel essay describes how Graham is an important predecessor to popular contemporary food evangelists (and best-selling authors) like Michael Pollan. How can we use the course so far to better understand Graham himself?

14: Meyer-Renschhausen and Wirz, “Dietetics, Health Reform and Social Order …”, 323-41.

  • Why was there a need for dietetic reform? How is this similar to and different from cultural circumstances we’ve seen before?
  • Cheyne talked about pipes and juices. What kinds of metaphors or analogies characterize Bircher-Benner’s dietetics? Why?
  • What is “anti-rationalistic” with respect to a diet? Why would a diet be characterized this way? How could one show it wasn’t?
  • What kind of arguments were being made against eating meat?
  • What’s the big picture point of the Müsli story?

16: Morantz, “Making Women Modern: Middle Class Women and Health Reform …” 490-507.

Come to class with three questions! Please try to formulate questions as per previous reading guides–questions that pull out key themes or ideas that help us focus on their significance. Don’t get bogged down in details! I know you’ll be busy revising your essays, but you should be able to read the entire article quickly (it’s short) and still come up with good questions. I will randomly select students to share their questions for our discussion—so be prepared!

Nutritionism and its Origins

19: Nutritionism, “The Nutritionist Paradigm,” 25-50.

This is obviously a different kind of reading than we’ve had before, and considerably more technical from a nutrition standpoint. Our goal for this class is to get clear about the larger points that the author wants to make and the specific terms and concepts he introduces (and uses throughout the book). YOUR JOB: Come to class with with 5 terms or concepts that we should clarify. There may be a quiz about these.

21: Nutritionism, “The Era of Quanitfying Nutritionism,” 51-71.

What does Scrinis means by “quantifying nutritionism”? What processes encouraged that? To what extent does it still pervade dietary thinking and advice? Although a seemingly objective measure of energy, how is the calorie political? What are the examples of techno-fixes in this chapter? “Perception of nutrient scarcity” and “myth of nutritional precision” are key phrases that motivate this chapter—what are they? And do they really matter? How far can we trust Scrinis’s analysis?

23: NO CLASS (break)

The Rise of Nutrition(ism)

26: Eating Right in America, “Beginning of Modern Dietary Reform,” 13-44.

Here we get another look at food reformers in the early 20th century, with an emphasis on the links between diet and morality. A few key points to consider: What does “morality” mean in this chapter? Why is it so important (per the reformers) to have the proper diet? How is the proper diet related to the supposedly universal calorie? Also note that we are highly likely to have our first quiz of the semester. Read carefully, but you know that I won’t ask you about nitpicky details.

28: 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.

We don’t need to summarize the main points of the article—they are clearly stated at the end. Our goal is to understand the overall flavor of this article that is representative of Atwater’s work so often referenced in our readings of late. Skim but don’t totally skip the science lesson details. I want to critique this article like you did your articles for your essays and consider some questions that have we’ve considered in other contexts. How does article reflect larger scientific currents? To what extent has this been true for our other sources? What’s the point of all the science detail? Where does metaphor play a role? How does this article compare to the kinds of articles you read for your essay?

30: Harvey Levenstein, “The Great Malnutrition Scare 1907-1915,” 109-120.

Advertising Nutrition

3: Harvey Levenstein, “The Newer Nutrition 1915-1930,” 147-160.

Also look over John Harvey Kellogg, The New Dietetics, what to Eat and how: A Guide to Scientific Feeding in Health and Disease (1921): read the Preface (5-7); skim the Table of Contents (8-21); read 25-37. Also see Elmer McCollum, The Newer Knowledge of Nutrition: read the preface, skim the Table of Contents, and read 1-13.

5: Rima D. Apple, “‘They Need it Now’: Science, Advertising and Vitamins, 1925-1940”.

7: You Can’t Trust What You Read About Nutrition.

We’ll also discuss the results of your packaging and labeling surveys.

Food Will Win the War

10: First Essay Rewrites Due. Eating Right in America, “Anxiety and Aspiration,” 45-79.

12: Optional Writing Workshop

Bring a draft if you’d like; or we’ll talk through your articles so that you can get your second essay off to a good start.

14: NO CLASS (fall break)

Please start on your diet research!

The End of Food

17: NO CLASS (work on your essays!)

19: Second Essay Due. Lizzie Widdicombe, “End of Food.”

21: Food Politics, Introduction, 11-28.

USDA Guidelines

24: Food Politics, Chapters 1 and 2, 29-66.

26: Food Politics, Chapter 3, 67-93.

28: PRESENTATIONS: Collectively read Food Politics, Part 2 (93-171).

Health Claims

31: Food Politics, Part 4 Intro and Chapter 10, 219-246.

2: Food Politics, Chapter 12, 272-93.

4: NO CLASS (work on your essays; read for Monday)

Techno/Functional Foods

7: Optional Essay Drafts Due. Same format as Essay #2; Remember to review the critique writing guide. Food Politics, Part 4 Intro and Chapter 13, 295-314; skim Chapter 14, 315-337.

Reading Guide: Be prepared to discuss the following questions in both specific and general terms (that is, drawing from particular examples presented in the chapter AND synthsizing them): What were the original reasons for fortification? How much did fortification help? What emerged as potential problems? Drawing together some of our recent readings: What are larger dangers associated with fortification in general? Is fortification a good idea? To what extent do we see the “two cultures” model at work with fortification?

9: Nutritionism, “Functional Foods: Nutritional Engineering, Marketing and Corporate Nutritionism,” 191-214.

Reading Guide: Thinking back to earlier chapters of this book (and the brief summary he gives in this chapter), what is the author’s beef with nutrition science? Why would marketing focus on internal bodily processes? Where have we seen that before? How have “functional foods” been defined? Do you agree with the author that they are no different from other foods? What’s the deal with trans-nutric foods? What have we learned from oat science?(!) What’s a “nutritional facade”? And a “halo effect”? What are the FDA’s 3 categories of health claims? Are those categories helpful or harmful? Do you agree that “food corporations become the primary promoters and beneficiaries of this reductive understanding of nutrients, foods, and the body” (211)?

11: David M. Nowacek and Rebecca S. Nowacek, “The Organic Foods System: Its Discursive Achievements and Prospects,” College English 70.4 (2008): 403–20.

Reading Guide: We’ve been reading about the language by which foods and supplements are labeled and the kind of laws they must follow. While “organic” is not necessarily a health claim per se, it clearly speaks to the nature of what we consider to be “healthy” food. In this article, don’t worry about all the sociological theory stuff, especially at the beginning. Activity Systems Theory (whatever that is) is not our primary concern. Focus on the history of the organic movement and the discourse of organics (the way people define it for their own purposes and give it meaning). Our focus here complements our discussion about nutrition discourse. In particular: What have been some problems with “organic” as a label? Who has defined it? How can we explain (in part) the rise of organics? Why are “inputs” so crucial to certification? How is organic certification different from the problems with labeling we’ve recently discussed? Can industrial farming be truly organic?

Organics and Food Quality

14: Third Essay Due. Same format as Essay #2; Remember to review the critique writing guide. Fad Diet Essays discussion.

16: Jeffrey Haydu, “Cultural Modeling in Two Eras of U.S. Food Protest: Grahamites (1830s) and Organic Advocates (1960s–70s),” Social Problems 58.3 (2011): 461–87.

Reading Guide: Like the last article, you should skim the sociological theory and jargon at the beginning, focusing your attention on p. 467, when the author begins to compare the two movements. Our discussion will focus on (and the article nicely outlines these with clear headings: What are the key historical similarities and differences between the Gramhamites and the organic-ites (for lack of better term)?

18: Nutritionism, “Food Quality Paradigm,” 215-236.

Reading Guide: The gist of the article is straightforward enough, so let’s discuss some of the larger questions Scrinis raises. Are Tables 9.1 and 9.2 useful ways of categorizing levels of processing? What are the potential problems? What can we learn from the history of organics on this issue? Scrinis is adamant (page 223, for instance) that health threats come primarily from “high levels of reconstituted, degraded, and synthetic food components.” Do you agree? Similarly, is it true (page 226), that nutritionism is far less important than the “range of chemical pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones found in industrially produced foods”? Does one have to be educated about “good” food? Is it natural? Should education focus on nutrition or eating?

Weight and Health

21: Nutritionism, “Macronutrient Diet Wars,” 99-132.

Reading Guide: What are the key macro-nutrient diet wars? How much does “science” matter in formulating and re-formulating dietary advice? How has science “progressed” as we’ve moved from low fat to low carb to low sugar? What kinds of research or evidence motivated such shifts? Is the GI/GL metric “good” or “bad” science? What is Scrinis’s complaint about the diet books (and often research, too) he critiques throughout the chapter? Would we be healthier if the calorie didn’t exist?

23: NO CLASS (pre-Thanksgiving)

25: NO CLASS (Thanksgiving)

Junk Food + Obesity

28: DUE: First draft of your Fad Diet Essays; Review the fad diet essay guide. Michael Moss, The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, The New York Times, February 2013.

30: David H. Freedman, How Junk Food Can End Obesity, The Atlantic, July 2013.

2: David Berreby, The Obesity Era, Aeon, June 2013.

Reading Guide: This might be the most important reading we do this semester. Why?!? As usual, be prepared to discuss: What’s the evidence like? How compelling is the writing and the argument? Why is it so difficult to let go of obesity (or health in general) as personal choice or responsibility? How is “science” going to help with this?


5: Eating Right in America, “Connecting the Dots,” 150-55; Food Politics, “Conclusion,” 358-74.

7: Final Discussion (useful for your final): What can we learn from the history of diet and health?