History of Food, Diet, and Health

Fall 2018 • HIST 410
info | readings


Mon 8/20

Introduction to the course, syllabus, and expectations.

Wed 8/22

Dietary advice is constantly changing. What possible use is history?

  • Kevin Quealy and Margot Sanger-katz, “Is Sushi ‘Healthy’? What About Granola? Where Americans and Nutritionists Disagree,” The New York Times, July 5, 2016. NYTimes.

Fri 8/24

  • Selections from Mark Grant (tr.), Galen on Food and Diet: 1-8; 14-18; 68-84. PDF

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?

Early Modern Diets

Mon 8/27

  • 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 humors 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?

Wed 8/29

  • 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?

Fri 8/31: The Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum and Transmission of Medical Knowledge

Going slightly out of chronological order, today we’re looking at the most popular treatise on diet of the later Medieval period, the Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum (Salernitan Regimen of Health). It was originally composed around 1200 around Salerno in northern Italy (hence Salernitanum in the title), and remained influential (in various versions and editions) into the 1800s. It has a lot of interesting dietary advice that echoes what we’ve already discussed and some new features as well. More significantly, it helps us think about the nature of dietary expertise (the main topic for next week), the transmission of medical knowledge, and challenges studying the history of medicine.

  • Skim through this version of the Regimen sanitatis (an English prose version from late 1500s). Start on page 75; just read a dozen pages or so, and then flip through a bit more, reading carefully here and there to get a sense of the text.
  • When you decide you want a clearer but boring English version, read through this one. Think about how to make sense of what seems like weird advice. Where did this stuff come from? How different is it from we write about dietary advice?
  • Lastly, read this short blog post about following the diet.
  • Not much reading for today, but do come to class prepared to discuss what you found interesting about the Regimen, and to critique the blog post (more practice applying the course!).

Dietary Expertise

Mon 9/3: NO CLASS (labor day)

Wed 9/5

  • Steven Shapin, “Trusting George Cheyne,” 263-97.

This reading continues and focuses our previous attention to medical expertise and moral authority. We’ve already read 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?

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 prevalent was the “micromechanical” approach/advice we read about last time? What kinds of experience does Shapin discuss? What are the modern analogs?

And the biggest question: 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.

Fri 9/7: NO CLASS

Work on your Expertise Analysis; it’s due Monday! Find an article about diet and health, and write a 600-word answer to the question: How does the author establish expertise? Your analysis must use and reference class sources related to expertise! For more detail, consult the expertise analysis writing guide.

19th-century Reformers

Mon 9/10

DUE: Expertise analysis. Bring your papers to class; we’ll discuss some of your findings, but mostly we’ll talk about proto-vegetarianism from the below reading.

  • Shprintzen, The Vegetarian Crusade, 1-9; 10-27; 32-38 (Introduction and Chapter 1: Proto-vegetarianism). online and in Zotero.

Wed 9/12

What is your impression of these important dietary texts of the early 19th century? How do they reinforce or contradict the impression of Graham that you got from what we read in Shprintzen last time?

Fri 9/14: NO CLASS

The Origins of Nutrition

Mon 9/17

  • Mark R. Finlay, “Quackery and Cookery: Justus von Liebig’s Extract of Meat and the Theory of Nutrition in the Victorian Age,” 404–420.

Wed 9/19

  • Jessica J. Mudry, Measured Meals. Nutrition in America, 1-19 (Introduction: Eating by Numbers).

Fri 9/21

  • Jessica J. Mudry, Measured Meals. Nutrition in America, 21-46 (Chapter 1: Early History of American Nutrition Research).

From Malnutrition to Vitamania

Mon 9/24

  • Eating Right in America, 13-44 (Chapter 2: Scientific Moralization…). 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?

  • SKIM: 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.

    • 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?
    • How/why does metaphor play a role?

Wed 9/26

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

Fri 9/28

  • Catherine Price, Vitamania, 47-63 (Chapter 4: Journey into Food);

The New Nutrition

Mon 10/1

  • DUE: 750-word primary source analysis of one of the following sources (we’ll talk about both in class, so read both, but write an analysis of just one).
    • What was your first/overall impression of the reading?
    • How do these sources illustrate what we’ve been reading in class recently?
    • What else can we learn about diet and health from these sources?
  • 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.
  • Elmer McCollum, The Newer Knowledge of Nutrition (1922).
    • read the preface, skim the Table of Contents; read 1-13.

Wed 10/3

  • Catherine Price, Vitamania, 64-90 (Chapter 5: A to Zeitgeist).

Fri 10/5

A language of numbers

Mon 10/8

  • Jessica J. Mudry, Measured Meals. Nutrition in America, 47-76 (Chapter 2: Reading Federal Food Guides).

Wed 10/10: NO CLASS (pre fall break)

Fri 10/12: NO CLASS (fall break)

Seeds of Change

Mon 10/15

  • Warren Belasco, Appetitle for Change 15-28 (Chapter 1: An Edible Dynamic); 111-131 (Chapter 5: The Orthodox Defense: The War of the Metaphors).

Wed 10/17

  • Catherine Carstairs, “‘Our Sickness Record Is a National Disgrace’: Adelle Davis, Nutritional Determinism, and the Anxious 1970s”, 461–91.

Fri 10/19

  • Ian Mosby, “‘That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968-1980”, 133–51.

Dangerous Diets

Mon 10/22

Wed 10/24

Fri 10/26: NO CLASS

Health Claims

Mon 10/29

Food Politics, 219-246. (Part 4 Introduction, “Deregulating Dietary Supplements”, and Chapter 10, “Science versus supplements”).

Wed 10/31

Fri 11/2

  • Nadia Berenstein, Clean label’s dirty little secret
  • DUE: Label Analysis!
    • Pick a food/food-like item that makes health claims.
    • Cereal boxes, granola bars, various snack items, supplements, etc. make good choices; don’t pick candy or soda or any product whose label doesn’t have anything to do with health.
    • Write a 750 word analysis about how the label tries to inform you about health
    • AS ALWAYS: your analysis must draw from course readings!


Mon 11/5

  • Gyorgy Scrinis, “On the Ideology of Nutritionism,” 39–48. What does Scrinis means by “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?

Wed 11/7

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

Fri 11/9

Organics and Food Quality

Mon 11/12

  • John T. Lang, What’s So Controversial about GMOs, 7-24 (Introduction); 91-114 (Chapter 4: Scientific Fallibility).

Wed 11/14

  • 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. 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)?

Fri 11/16

  • Georgy Scrinis, Nutritionism, 215-236 (Chapter 9: The Food Quality Paradigm). The gist of the article is straightforward enough, so we’ll discuss some of the larger questions that 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

Mon 11/19

Wed 11/21: NO CLASS (pre-Thanksgiving)

Fri 11/23: NO CLASS (Thanksgiving)

Junk Food + Obesity

Mon 11/26

Wed 11/28

  • A. F. La Berge, “How the Ideology of Low Fat Conquered America,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 63.2 (2007): 139–77.

Fri 11/30

  • David Berreby, The Obesity Era, Aeon, June 2013. 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?


Mon 12/3: Catch up

Wed 12/5: Final Discussion (useful for your final): What can we learn from the history of diet and health?