Dr. Alissa Overend

Sociology prof's book about changing food facts aims to change the way we think about food

January 21, 2021 | Science, Health, Society

As mid-January takes its toll on the new year/new me resolutions made only weeks ago, one of its victims is "eating better." Changing food habits is challenging at the best of times, says MacEwan University's Dr. Alissa Overend, and there are many mixed messages about what constitutes healthy eating and nutrition.

In Overend's recently published book, Shifting Food Facts: Dietary Discourse in a Post-Truth Culture, the associate professor and sociologist presents contextual ways of thinking about the changing politics of food, eating and nutrition, debunking our cultural attachment to singular food truths.

Q.Why do we need to talk about food differently? What are some challenges for people?

We focus too intently on the "what" of food and risk losing sight of other relevant questions concerning food and health. The more critical question is not what we should eat, but why we eat what we eat. When we pull apart the question of why, we find more compelling answers about nutrition that link us to social conditions and contexts that affect healthy eating.

Scientized approaches to food and eating have become quite normalized in contemporary culture. Many people think about food in terms of calories and nutrients. But food also has deep social and cultural ties. It brings up memory and emotion. It is comforting and social (as the pandemic has highlighted). It is deeply tied to seasons and location. Our tastes change as we age. Food is also affected by changing paradigms of healthy eating (consider how many people in the 1980s gave up fats in the name of health or who are currently eating carb-free).

In short, food is so much more than the sum total of its nutrients, and by accounting for contextual food truths, we better understand the role of food in our lives and in our health.

Q.What was the need to write this book?

There is no shortage of mixed messages about food or healthy eating, whether it be changing food guide advice, confusing food facts labels, misleading advertising claims, and/or misguided celebrity endorsements. Not only do I think the general public is thoroughly confused about what constitutes healthy eating, but I also think we've gone a little too far in the search for singular food truths at the expense of understanding contextual food truths. In short, the book is part critical media literacy and part critical plea to understand food and healthy eating as extensions of social and cultural contexts.


Q.What are “contextual food truths” versus “singular food truths,” and how are they in conflict with each other?

Singular food truths are empirical understandings of food. For example, a bagel contains approximately 11 grams of protein, 56 grams of carbs, two grams of fat, and three grams of fibre. Contextual food truths look at food and eating in situational and relational contexts. Not only are people more likely to eat food in combination, affecting a food's absorption and metabolism (a bagel eaten with peanut butter will be processed more slowly than one eaten on its own), but broader social patterns of eating also affect food.

The French Paradox is commonly cited as an example of why we need to look to social and cultural contexts of eating to better understand health. French cuisine is rife with food items deemed "unhealthy" in western contexts — cured meats, cream sauces, rich cheeses, pastries and wine — and yet, the French population is typically healthier and lives longer than their North American counterparts. While the French eat rich foods, they eat much smaller portions, there are social taboos on seconds, they rarely eat alone, and their meals tend to last a couple of hours.

Q.Your book talks about the “changing politics of food, eating and nutrition” — so what is “political” about this topic?

What we eat, when we eat, with whom we eat and how much we eat is political as it relates to food access, affordability, time, knowledge and ability to buy and prepare food. Increasingly, we are asking individuals to eat healthy, read labels, be critical of food advertising, be careful of what items they put in their grocery carts — but we also need to ask if these strategies best address macro-level reasons for food insecurity.

At a time when wealth disparities are ballooning, environmental collapse is looming and industrial food systems undermine local food sovereignty, the solution cannot be more individual-based health messaging. While individualistic food advice may benefit those with relative economic privilege, it does not address the underlying systemic inequalities responsible for ill health.



Considering Canada’s food guide

Sociology prof challenges us to look beyond singular food truths.

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