Connecting with people about the importance of nutrition requires personal attention. That’s the lesson from Dr. Steven Shapin’s recent book, “Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority.”
Dr. Shapin, a professor of the History of Science at Harvard, traces the history of how people have viewed healthy eating and drinking. In particular, I was interested in the section in which Dr. Shapin discusses the meaning of “expert” in the nutrition science context. He outlines the tension between nutrition as hard science and nutrition as popular culture and does so in a compelling manner.
Dr. Shapin begins with a discussion of the mainstream hard scientific view of nutrition. His narrative draws parallels between the standard clinical dietary focus of eating to avoid heart disease, diabetes and cancer and the prescription of medicine. Rather than treating food as an aspect of an individual’s life, the hard scientists sterilize it with talk of disease control.
I was struck by the thought that while people “eat to live,” food plays a much more important role in an individual’s daily social experience than a comparison to aspirin would suggest. Dr. Shapin describes how the academic nutritionist will expound on the virtues of healthy eating by describing how certain foods will reduce the population risk of diabetes by X% when their audience really desires personalized responses to personal concerns.
By contrast, nutrition experts were compared with the popular “experts” such as Dr. Atkins. Unlike the scientists, Dr. Atkins marketed his materials with personal testimonials of how a low-carbohydrate diet immensely improved the lives of actual people. Representing the individual allowed Dr. Atkins to touch on the immediately appreciable aspects of food and dieting choices: the actual results of personal choices. (Of course, it didn’t hurt the popularity of the Atkins diet that that it gave permission to eat as much of what you wanted of the foods you were not supposed to be eating.)
It is true that as a nutritionist I resort to research to back my recommendations on the right foods to eat. But unlike some scientists who attempt to take a dogmatic approach and advise people to avoid certain foods, I believe that it is more important to choose to eat what you enjoy and to enjoy sensible portions. At PepsiCo we are investigating how individual dietary behavioral change can be encouraged. Clearly, future health risks are a motivator for only a small percentage of the population.
This holiday season I have been practicing the individual demonstration approach to illustrate correct portions in the work cafeteria. And on Christmas Eve, I made sure to leave Santa a sensible snack!