On episode 55, Pixie Turner, M.Sc., and Alan Flanagan, M.Sc, joined us as we jumped into our coveralls, rolled up our sleeves, and took a look under the sputtering, stalling, overheating hood of public nutrition.
And what did we find there? Increasing rates of food anxiety and disordered eating. Widespread chronic lifestyle disease. And hunger. People are suffering from an excess of food messaging at the same time that people suffering from a lack of food choices at the same time that people are suffering from a simple lack. And if you’re wondering how all of those problems can exist at once, we’re right there with you.
Which is why we decided, with the help of Pixie and Alan, to take the old nutritional engine apart. We analyzed its components, studied its flaws, and tried to identify what’s causing this great big smoking mess. As it turns out, a lot of things are to blame, including economic structures, massive corporations, politics, and the media. As it turns out, problems in nutrition come down to social justice. Not personal responsibility.
That’s right. Although the “ extensive messaging that we receive around food,” says Alan, “is very much a narrative of individual responsibility,” people aren’t culpable for health issues resulting from poor diets. As Pixie explains, “When you don’t have a lot of money, you might have access to cheap calorie dense food, and that’s it. Or, you might not even have enough money for that. We have [people] that can’t even buy the cheapest foods in society, and then we have this problem where the poor are both overweight and lacking nutrition.”
The reality is, people who aren’t privileged don’t have agency in their food consumption. And so they are not personally responsible for resultant health problems. That responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of entrenched political ideologies and economic structures-- structures that are responsible for food deserts and food waste-- structures that are built and maintained by the very people whose privileged perspective allows them to buy into that personal responsibly chicanery.
Without action on a large, political scale, this dual burden-- the existence of overnutrition and undernutrition in the same society-- is only going to become worse. Alan illustrates this by discussing the “nutrition transition”, i.e., the growing prevalence of the high fat, nutrient-poor Western diet in developing countries.
But it’s not just the disadvantaged that suffer deleterious effects of false narratives around nutrition. Those with financial means make perfect targets for charlatans quick to capitalize on their desperation to eat in a personally responsible (read: morally upright) manner.
Food anxiety is not only profitable, but it’s also isolating. When people feel judged on a moral level for their food choices, they’re less likely to seek help from nutrition experts if they need it. And when people judge each other’s characters by their diets, they are less likely to work together to solve public health problems.
Alan and Pixie discuss possible solutions to the issues of chronic lifestyle disease, food anxiety, and hunger-- some of which require interventions on a political scale while others can be achieved by conscientious grassroots efforts. These efforts, of course, should be informed by scientific data gathered from well-designed sociological research. These efforts, of course, should begin with compassion.
Really, as Pixie puts it, any positive change in nutrition “starts with less judgement and more compassion.”
You can learn more about Pixie and Alan by following them on Instagram at @pixienutrition and @thenutritional_advocate.