Food For Thought

I was musing on here the other day about shaming as a strategy for change. I don’t think it ever really works. I mean, how often has some total jerk said, “You know, I never really thought about it that way before! I will stop making rape jokes!” or whatever? Kind of never. And yet it still gets used all the time, especially in relation to food. While we are, of course, all individuals, some new research shows that focusing on the communal and group aspects of food choices is a better strategy. 

A study that will be published in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that raising environmental awareness and knowledge of the social issues surrounding food led to students making healthier individual food choices.

“This is a novel strategy, and we believe it is an important new direction to pursue,” said senior author Thomas Robinson, MD, MPH, professor of pediatrics and of medicine at the School of Medicine and director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. “When people get involved in social movements, it changes their behavior more dramatically than what we’ve seen with more cognitive-based approaches.”

The study followed students who took a class called “Food and Society,” that focused on the social and environmental issues surrounding food. Compared with students who took classes in more traditional community health and nutrition formats. At the beginning of the semester, the students in all the classes had similar eating habits, but by the end of the semester, the students in the “Food and Society” class were eating more vegetables and fewer desserts, while the students in the other classes were actually eating fewer vegetables (finals!).

This is just one study, with a super-small sample size, but I think it is really interesting. For those whose food-focus is on getting folks to eat healthier, it’s instructive to think about how teaching about food scarcity, ethics, and the global implications of food choices can make an impact, vs hammering at individuals about their BMI and their blood sugar. It’s kind of gross that this is framed as a “stealth intervention,” though—like “We wouldn’t have to teach them all these pesky facts if they would do it the right way to begin with,” or something.

What I hope is that by broadening the discussion to talk about systemic problems, we might be able to talk about systemic solutions, because, while CSAs are great, they aren’t going to do the trick.