You’ve heard the cliché: you are what you eat. A new book argues that in fact, our food choices say much more than that, reflecting our personal backgrounds, aspirations, and opinions of ourselves and others.
Acquired Tastes: Why Families Eat the Way They Do takes a scholarly look at how everything from gender and social class to political and moral concerns shapes the meanings that people attach to food. In a food-obsessed city like Vancouver, it’s an especially relevant book that draws many conclusions—some predictable and others not.
Researchers interviewed 105 families from across Canada, living in small and large cities as well as rural areas composed of farms and villages, of varying income levels and social classes. It’s a project that Gwen Chapman says is a culmination of her research interests over several years in UBC’s faculty of land and food systems.
“I’ve focused on trying to understand people’s eating habits from a social perspective: the way we eat, the way we think about food, and how those are embedded in the social context of our lives,” Chapman, a professor, says by phone. “I’ve been particularly interested in gender as well as family relationships relating to food practices.”
“We judge ourselves and we judge others about their food choices,” she later says.
For Acquired Tastes, Chapman teamed up with Brenda Beagan, a medical sociologist and professor at Dalhousie University’s school of occupational therapy, and four other researchers from across Canada.
The study found that gender had the greatest influence on people’s engagement with food, the data strongly suggesting that feeding families is still the domain of women. In almost every family interviewed, an adult woman was primarily responsible for planning menus, shopping for groceries, cooking, and orchestrating meals that balanced individual preferences, hectic schedules, and cultural traditions.
“In this regard, the gendered nature of family foodwork seems to have changed very little during the past several decades,” the authors write in the book. “Our data also revealed that women’s responsibilities extended beyond ensuring that everyone was fed to caring for everyone’s health.…By promoting the principles of healthy eating and incorporating healthy foods into family meals, women could establish an identity that was recognizably feminine, mark themselves as good mothers, and distinguish themselves from women whom they critiqued as inadequately feeding themselves and their families.”
The topic of healthy eating came up time and again in researchers’ interviews with families, with some participants feeling guilty about not achieving a certain standard of eating and others laughing off their inability to reach a “gold” standard of healthy eating. And while the term healthy eating came up often, people had different ideas about what exactly it means. Some interpreted it as homemade, whole foods and “traditional meal patterns”, such as plates of meat and vegetables. Others considered healthy eating to comprise foods devoid of components such as artificial colours, preservatives, additives, and sugar. Some participants said they believe people have a responsibility to eat healthfully. Still others presented themselves as virtuous or moral individuals because of their eating habits.
“This implied that some foods were more sophisticated than others, but it also imputed a lesser moral status to those who ate low-brow and
unhealthy food,” the authors write. “This often occurred when people described their impressions of other people’s choices in a grocery store.”
Interestingly, participants categorized certain foods, such as lighter and healthier ones, as “feminine” while typically masculine eating was depicted as unconcerned with health or cost.
“Almost everyone described men as reluctant to eat vegetables, the agreed-upon cornerstone of both healthy eating and maintaining weight control,” the authors write. “Masculine diets were characterized as meat-centred, hearty, heavy, and filling.…
Regardless of age or gender, almost everyone associated men and meat, especially beef.”
Poverty makes it hard for people to follow whatever dictates of healthy eating may exist, “widening chasms in health outcomes between social classes”, note the authors.
Chapman and her colleagues echo Charlotte Biltekoff, author of Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health, in their call for a new “dietary literacy” akin to media literacy.
There are no quick fixes to problems such as poor nutrition, Chapman admits, but their research could be used to shape public policy, including finding ways to alleviate poverty and supporting education on food skills (including gardening, shopping, cooking, and nutrition) for all students from kindergarten to Grade 12.
“Our research clearly shows that people living in poverty really struggle to eat in the ways they want to be eating, ways that meet their own standards for healthy eating, ethics, and eating in socially acceptable ways,” Chapman says. “Support for education on food skills…may help ease some of the gender differences in food attitudes and practices. If all students are introduced to concepts and skills, then it may help in developing more shared responsibilities for food. It will be important to ensure that this education helps to raise understanding about gender and food in ways that encourage change rather than reinforcing stereotypes.”