Patterns of diet and activity, and nutritional and health status vary across cultures and historical periods. For example, currently there are populations living as hunter-gatherers and also groups subsisting on diets high in fat and refined carbohydrates. The nutrition and health situations in developing countries have been exemplified by nutrient deficiencies, such as protein-energy malnutrition, iron deficiency anemia, vitamin A deficiency, and iodine deficiency, in addition to periodic famine and high prevalence of infectious diseases. In contrast, over the past 100 years nutrition-related non-communicable diseases (obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some types of cancer) have mainly been a challenge in Western industrialized countries. However, today changes in work patterns, lifestyles, and food systems (e.g., global availability of cheap vegetable oils and fats) are contributing to an increase in non-communicable diseases also in developing countries, particularly countries in rapid economic transition. As a result these countries are facing a growing risk of a double burden: the persisting problem of undernutrition plus the rising prevalence of obesity (Drewnowski & Popkin, 1997; Popkin, 2002).
The relationships of food, nutrition, society, and culture are highly relevant for population health and welfare. Food is integrated into all aspects of life, and is, therefore, also studied in a wide range of disciplines. In nutritional sciences food is mainly viewed in terms of its nutrient composition and effects upon the body's metabolic processes and health status. There has been a special interest in developing methods for measuring nutrient intake and defining essential, adequate, and optimal intakes of nutrients. Anthropological perspectives, which are broad and holistic, tend to look at food and nutrition in populations as complex systems influenced by many factors, including the environment, genetic inheritance, culture, and socioeconomic circumstances. Anthropological research on food and nutrition examines the origin, development, and diversity of the human diet and tries to understand how and what people in different cultures and contexts eat. Food is often viewed as a system of communication; it conveys meanings and social relations. Cultures distinguish themselves from one another in part through their different eating habits, manners, and conceptions of eating. Class, gender, age, and ethnic distinctions are also manifested through food practices and rules about eating.
Food and nutrition within anthropology is a diverse field, which broadly can be divided into two groups based on the main focus: nutritional anthropology and anthropology of food. Nutritional anthropology is a subfield of medical anthropology in which nutritional implications of food intake, food as carrier of nutrients, nutritional status, human growth, and health are the focus. Studies in nutritional anthropology draw on theories and methods from both biological and social sciences. In contrast, anthropology of food focuses on the cultural and social significance of food and eating. Food is studied as a way of understanding social and cultural processes and to reveal symbolic structures. For example, anthropologists have examined the reasons why only a limited selection of all that is theoretically edible in a culture is actually consumed as food and how individuals learn culturally defined rules of what and how to eat. A number of authors have undertaken reviews of the most significant perspectives in anthropology and sociology of food (e.g., Beardsworth & Keil, 1997; Caplan, 1994; Murcott, 1988). Classic pieces by Claude Levi-Strauss and Mary Douglas in addition to more recent anthropological texts from social, symbolic, and political-economic perspectives have been collected into a reader on food and culture (Counihan & Van Esterik, 1997). In addition to anthropology of food and nutritional anthropology, a third sub-field, food systems and food policy studies, has been suggested (Pelto, 1996). Food systems research focuses on the linkages between economic and social policy and food production and distribution, as well as food and nutrition policy implementation and program evaluation.
The objective of this entry is to provide an overview of the anthropological literature on nutrition and health. Because nutritional anthropology is the most health-oriented subfield of food and nutrition within anthropology, the focus will be on nutritional anthropology. This entry has three goals. First, to describe briefly the history of nutritional anthropology. Second, to present the main theoretical orientations and methods used in nutritional anthropology. Finally, to provide examples of themes that have occupied nutritional anthropologists.
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