Culture and Food Lecture

Evolution of Diet Observed in Physical Appearance

It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.  So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger of it . . . and warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied . . . and it is all one.  M. F. K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me, 1943


The Culture and Food classroom has so far taken students back to the origins of human diets, where they have learned  why plant foods have always been staple foods, with meat as a supplement.

With regards to Ms. Fisher’s quote above, we will see how culture relates to the hunger, love and warmth, she talks about and how these basic needs are embedded within culturally constructed food patterns.  Culture is more often the dominating factor in personal food choices than anything else.  We will also discuss how food processes, as well as food choices are culturally constructed.

I hope these courses motivate students to delve into food studies, health and nutrition, and their own reasons for choosing the foods they buy and eat. Perhaps students will actively promote organic foods, support local farmers’ markets, and stand up against GMO foods, highly processed and refined foods, and chemicalization of foods.  Young people must learn that nutritionally void fast foods destroy our bodies, as well as our communities.

 Watch the following short trailer of the program, “Honey, We Are Killing the Kids.”  You will see how culturally constructed food patterns in childhood lead to adverse consequences in adulthood.  We know that childhood obesity has been on the rise for over a decade. Imagine the family in the film multiplied by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of children across the industrialized Global Villages and it is not hard to see the health and economical consequences that are looming in the future.

Though the family in the film seems to have little knowledge of what food is actually for, acquiring proper nutrients for a healthy life, there are many avenues to follow to gain such knowledge.  The internet is a great source of information, but not always accurate information.  One place to start to gain accurate knowledge about what labels on food really mean, and how to construct a healthy diet, is at

At this site you can find the facts you need to know about food labels, and the latest news, research, and resources available for making wise food choices .

We approached the beginning of the Culture and Food series discussing diet origins of primates and early humans.  In nature, we discover that there are very few organisms that eat only specific foods; most diets are very broad based.  Studies of early primate diets shows that they eat a variety of foods.

Chapman and Chapman, 1990, reviewed long-term studies of wild primates focusing on the variations in their monthly diets.  They found, ” . . . primates do not consistently combine the same kinds of foods in their diets, as many past characterizations would suggest, but rather that they often switch between diet categories (e. g., fruit, insects, etc.) . . . Our review of primate diets on a monthly temporal scale suggests that primates do not always consistently include the same kinds of foods, in their diets.  Instead, primate populations frequently switch between diet categories.”  Since we are all primates, this study is very relevant, and we will now learn more about early human diets.

In 2003, Dr. Johan Georg Schnitzer of Germany put forth his belief, “. . . that the prehistoric human diet was, in fact, vegetarian and consisted of fruits, nuts, seeds and plants.  The truth of the original human diet, one corroborated by my own [Dr. Schnitzer’s] research, is told in our dental structure and other body structures.”

types of teeth 4

Dr. Schnitzer is the author of more than 20 books on food studies and health-related research.  More from his writings reveal the following about the evolution of the human diet.

“In human history, meat consumption has never been the basis of advanced civilization and cultural development. Bones found in old caves used as shelter by prehistoric people do not indicate that meat was their main food. Humans began eating small amounts of meat during the Stone Age. During the last ice age, when the plant-based foods of the past became unavailable, humans turned to meat to survive. And humans aren’t like carnivores in another way: we have to cook our meat, fry it, bake it–you name it, as opposed to the lion, which tears away at the flesh with his mighty caninus teeth.

types of teeth 5And here we are! In countries where much meat is consumed, you will find disease and degeneration. The last century has ushered in a drastically different style of eating in comparison to our grandparents, great grandparents and as far back as human history. We have become consumers of mass-marketed highly refined and processed foods. This is one of the primary reasons our health has also suffered.” (Schnitzer, 2003,)

It is well for us to to now examine how the evolution of the human diet in the 20th and 21st centuries began to become problematic.  A huge shift from rural to urban and suburban living began in the early 20th century.  People have become much more mobile, with both automobile and airplane travel.  Alongside such technological advances, which enabled us to move from a slower to a much faster pace, food choices, while traveling, and the traditional family dinner would have to adapt.  And it has, for good or bad.

Television invaded every home in mid 20th century, giving children reasons to stay inside and watch their favorite programs or cartoons.  In the last few decades, children’s advocates have begun to scrutinize both consistently watched programs, as well as cartoons’ contents.  Scholars like Hill and Radimer 1997, Hitchings and Moynihan 1998 began the pioneering scientific studies into the advertising content of children’s programs.

It might have been interesting for the doctor in the “Honey We Are Killing the Kids” series to learn which programs were most watched by the families they interviewed about nutritional health.  As reported by Jeremy L. Korr in Food, Culture and Society , December 2008, nutritional analysis of tens of thousands of food advertisements, “. . . found that 98 percent of the food commercials viewed by children aged  2 to 11, and 89 percent of those viewed by children aged 12 to 17 were for products high in fat, sugar, or sodium.”  The same studies also pointed out the overall negative effect on children of watching television.  “In other words,” says Korr, “children are inevitably exposed to extensive food advertising as a result of watching children’s programming.”

These findings are consistent with the evolutionary picture, which advanced technology was able to present to the mom, concerning her children, in the film clip.  We most often talk about evolution in terms of thousands and millions of years, but here technology revealed short-term evolution showing how poor nutritional choices in childhood can lead to an unhealthy adulthood.

Technology is a key aspect of culture, which provides many ways of adapting to environmental stresses.  Perhaps the mother in the film was adapting to the many stresses of “going it alone,” needing quick and easy meals without the knowledge of the consequences she was handing over to her children. The  fairly recent technology whereby programs can be pre-recorded and advertisements avoided may be of some help in providing less exposure to the advertisements which promote uninformed but attractive advertisements to children.  Still, the inactivity of watching long hours of television, not to mention internet and video game activities besides is adversely affecting everyone’s health, not just children.

All we have to do is watch the Super Bowl or other high-profile programs to notice the amount of negative food and drink advertisements that leave our mouths watering for foods with a poverty of nutrients.  We should all be active in promoting better health choices, whether we are students, parents, nutritionists, broadcasters, producers of programs, or even just “foodies,” like Michael Pollan and Dr. Andrew Weil.  Promoting good health choices and good food practices will make better citizens for better communities, in all the Global Villages where all cultures can thrive.


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