As with other fields of anthropology a wide variety of theoretical perspectives and methods are used in nutritional anthropology. A range of ecological, symbolic, materialist, and political perspectives has been used to explain patterns of food selection, nutritional consequences, and the relationships of nutrition to sociocultural, economic, and ecological processes.
What foods people eat and how much they eat are determined not simply by physiological needs, but also by political and ecological factors that determine the availability of food, and cultural factors that shape the acceptability and preparation of food. Therefore, it is not surprising that the biocultural approach has been widely used in nutritional anthropology. This is also reflected in the title of a recent edited volume on nutritional anthropology Nutritional Anthropology: Biocultural Perspectives on Food and Nutrition (Goodman, Dufour, & Pelto, 2000). Evolution and adaptation are central theoretical concepts in the biocul-tural or ecological approaches. Biological anthropologists have tried to assess the role of nutrition in human evolution and adaptation to different physical environments and climates. They have attempted to understand subsistence patterns and nutrition, population differences in nutrient utilization, and the evolution of favorable nutritional patterns, cooking methods, and dietary preferences. Focus on energy flow and the systems framework have given rise to studies on the problems of the food system, including inadequacies in the food supply or specific nutrient deficits (Haas & Harrison, 1977). However, the ecological approach has been criticized for ignoring political and economic factors and, as a consequence, political economy has more recently been given increased attention (Himmelgreen, 2002).
Pelto (1996) has provided a framework for organizing nutritional anthropology research. She has grouped research questions in nutritional anthropology into the following main headings: (1) sociocultural processes and nutrition; (2) social epidemiology of nutrition; (3) belief structures and nutrition; and (4) physiological adaptation, population genetics, and nutrition. Nutritional anthropological research on sociocultural processes and nutrition examines the nutritional consequences of social and cultural forces. The basic question is: What is the impact of sociocultural processes on nutrition? Sociocultural processes refer to both long-term and short-term evolutionary changes, such as transformation of subsistence from hunting-gathering to agriculture, the introduction of new technologies, modernization, or migration from rural to urban areas. In studies classified as the social epidemiology of nutrition the central issue is the identification of the determinants of, or the factors associated with, food intake and nutritional status. The emphasis is on the nutritional condition, and anthropologists aim to recognize the role of social factors in the etiology of that condition. For example, they have studied the factors that determine malnutrition or deficient levels of intakes of specific nutrients. Some of the nutritional anthropology research focuses on the relationships between cultural beliefs and nutritional outcomes. By examining the links between cultural idea systems (e.g., the humoral medicine system of hot/cold beliefs or modern rational models of diet) and nutrient intake, the strengths and weaknesses of dietary systems can be assessed and sociocultural barriers to change and potential avenues for facilitating improvement in dietary practices can be revealed. The group of studies labeled physiological adaptation, population genetics, and nutrition include research that addresses how the nutritional history of a population has formed or affected its physiological or genetic characteristics (e.g., low birth weight, growth, obesity). For example, nutritional anthropologists have studied the differences in the capacity to maintain production of lactase, an enzyme required for the digestion of milk, beyond early childhood from one population to another.
A considerable part of the work in nutritional anthropology is applied in nature; anthropological theories and methods are used to understand and improve specific nutritional problems and alleviate malnutrition. In the 1940s, work focused on solving the nutritional problems of feeding the army and populations during war. Since the 1970s a growing number of anthropologists have participated in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of nutrition and health programs and policies. For example, anthropologists have played a part in identifying the social and cultural variables that have the greatest impact on nutrition and health. In the 1990s anthropology moved from critique to greater involvement in action, and this can also be seen in applied nutritional anthropology (Pelto, 2000).
When the research problem, ethnographic context, and theoretical orientation are set, an appropriate methodology is selected. Over recent years, flexible and eclectic combinations of theoretical approaches and methods have become more common. Nutritional anthropologists utilize a wide variety of data-collection methods drawn from anthropology as well as from the nutritional sciences. Special training manuals and guides provide assistance on methodological issues for nutritional anthropologists (Pelto, Pelto, & Messer, 1989; Quandt & Ritenbaugh, 1986). To understand nutritional problems, anthropologists tend to examine the problems at several levels: the individual, the household, the society, and the region. The unit of data collection is often the individual, but the primary focus has traditionally been the community.
Often more than one technique is used; qualitative and quantitative methods are combined in a holistic approach. Dietary intake usually is measured by food record methods (weighed or estimated) and food recall methods (diet history, food frequency, 24-hour food recall). An individual's nutritional status is measured using anthropometric methods (measurements of the human biology, such as height, weight, and skin folds), energy expenditure, and growth. For example, measures of childhood growth and development are used to reflect the biological consequences of nutritional intake.
Data on cultural practices and rules related to diet and nutrition are collected by anthropological methods, including traditional fieldwork, archival research and the use of observational techniques, interview techniques, and written respondent records (questionnaires, diaries). Anthropologists have participated in the development of improved methods to measure food and nutrition-related variables, and tools and manuals for rapid or focused ethnographic investigation and assessment have also been developed (Pelto, 2000). However, it is important to consider that rapid assessments may provide only a limited understanding of a problem and may not be the best choice of method in studying some complex problems, such as malnutrition (Dettwyler, 1998).
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