Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health, Charlotte Biltekoff. Durhan, NC: Duke University Press. 2013. 224 pp.
In Eating Right in America, Charlotte Biltekoff explores the history of American dietary reform to reveal how culture, politics, and middle class moral ideologies have shaped our social understandings regarding what it means, and has meant, to “eat right” as an American. Biltekoff, an American studies scholar with expertise in the emergent field of critical nutrition, premises her first book with the view that,
nutrition is not only an empirical set of rules, but also a system of moral measures (p. 7).
From this stance, she argues that “eating right” has as much to do with normative ideas of good citizenship as it does with seemingly more objective concepts of good health.
Biltekoff’s exploration follows a chronological approach. Drawing upon research and analysis of dietary reform discourse she narrates the cultural and political story of food and health through the voices of the reformers themselves—from the mother of the domestic science movement, Ellen Richards, and the father of the wartime national nutrition program, Paul McNutt, to contemporary figures such as Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and Michelle Obama. Using the reformers as her narrators and the propaganda they inspired as her visual aids, she leads her readers through four of the most prominent dietary reform movements of the past century.
She begins her exploration with the upswing of domestic science in the late nineteenth century, transitions to the national nutrition program launched during World War II, and ends by shedding light on two contemporary movements birthed in the later decades of the twentieth century: the alternative food movement and the campaign against obesity. These movements com- pose the book’s four foundational chapters, each showcasing a different set of emerging dietary ideals. Throughout, Biltekoff emphasizes how changing definitions of good diets and good health have worked to draw ever more distinctive lines between America’s abiding middle class and the “unhealthy others” (p. 9).
While the actual dietary recommendations of each of these major reforms differ considerably— from the domestic science movement’s reductive nutritional lens and call for economically efficient diets, to the alternative food movement’s holistic view and call to invest in food that better serves the health of people and planet—Biltekoff’s most striking revelation comes through her unraveling of a unifying thread. Despite the almost complete reversal in the content of dietary advice over the course of a century, the messages endorsed by Ellen Richards and Alice Waters are fundamentally one and the same: to “eat right” is to be a good citizen (p. 2-4). Ultimately, Biltekoff challenges her readers to move beyond an empirical view of dietary health rooted in objective scientific fact toward a more constructionist view that accounts for the social processes and cultural influences that have helped to naturalize the scientific framings of health and diet.
What Eating Right in America fails to do, as Biltekoff acknowledges, is to delve into the ways in which U.S. citizens may have perceived or responded to, adopted or contested, the dietary advice they were subjected to. This gap marks an important area for future food scholars to build upon Biltekoff’s work, and to begin to better understand the contemporary ramifications of modern dietary discourse. Especially needed is a deep and nuanced understanding of those who have been posited as the “unhealthy others,” and made to shoulder the blame for their dietary shortcomings in true neoliberal fashion. How do these individuals view good food, a good diet, and good health? What are their reasons, challenges, and barriers to not following the path of dietary adherence to good health and good citizenship? Understanding the answers to these questions may more effectively allow food and nutrition professionals to help individuals make appropriate choices about their diets while con- fronting that such messages are inherently fraught with moral and ethical implications. Through her historical analysis Biltekoff reveals the patterns and persistent links between dietary health and citizenship, while also pinpointing the pieces that have been left out; the pieces that are needed to more fully complete the picture of contemporary dietary reform.
Eating Right in America may arouse more questions than it answers, and probably complicates readers’ understandings of nutrition and dietary health more than it clarifies. However, that is exactly what Biltekoff intends. This powerful critique of dietary reform
provide[s] a starting point from which to rethink eating right as a social duty, a moral measure, and a form of power worthy of our most critical attention (p. 12).
In summary, this book is for anyone who thinks ordering a side salad instead of fries holds no moral implications, anyone who views the USDA’s MyPlate dietary pictorial guide as intrinsic scientific fact, or anyone who has never thought of their morning latte purchase as an exercise of power. This book is for anyone who eats, right or wrong, in America.
Maria Carabello is a MS candidate at the University of Vermont (UVM) studying Food Systems, with research interests in cooking, health, and pedagogy. Maria received her BS in Nutrition and Food Sciences with a minor in Anthropology from UVM in May of 2013. She works as a graduate teaching assistant for courses in the Nutrition and Food Sciences department, and also serves as a research assistant to her advisor, Dr. Amy Trubek. When Maria is not writing, reading, and researching she enjoys exploring Vermont’s artisanal food and beverage scene; a hobby healthily offset by weekends skiing in the Green Mountains.