The Frontal Cortex

Obesity and Food Culture

Razib has a super-interesting post on the prevalence of obesity among individuals of mixed race. His post was based on this paper:

The sample included 215,000 adults who reported one or more ethnicities, height, weight, and other characteristics through a mailed survey. … The highest age-adjusted prevalence of overweight (BMI greater than or equal to 25) was in Hawaiian/Latino men (88% ; n = 41) and black/Latina women (74.5% ; n = 79), and highest obesity (BMI greater than or equal to 30) rates were in Hawaiian/Latino men (53.7% ; n = 41) and Hawaiian women (39.2% , n = 1,247). The prevalence estimates for most admixed groups were similar to or higher than the average of the prevalences for the ethnic groups with whom they shared common ethnicities. For instance, the prevalence of overweight/obesity in five ethnic admixtures–Asian/white, Hawaiian/white, Hawaiian/Asian, Latina/white, and Hawaiian/Asian/white ethnic admixtures–was significantly higher (P < 0.0001) than the average of the prevalence estimates for their component ethnic groups. … The identification of individuals who have a high-risk ethnic admixture is important not only to the personal health and well-being of such individuals, but could also be important to future efforts in order to control the epidemic of obesity in the United States.

Although Razib considers some interesting genetic explanations, my own hunch is that cultural factors are the more important variable here. As Michael Pollan points out, one of the central problems with American eating habits is the absence of an indigenous food culture. Instead of relying on time-tested habits – modern Tuscans are still enjoying their 18th century peasant diet, full of legumes, durum wheat pasta and bitter greens – we’ve switched over to a diet based on Nabisco’s bottom line and horribly misguided agricultural subsidies, which encourage farmers to grow high-fructose corn syrup. This shiny new diet, wrapped in the impressive vocabulary of nutrionism, has erased all the culinary wisdom accrued over the centuries:

In many cases, long familiarity between foods and their eaters leads to elaborate systems of communications up and down the food chain, so that a creature’s senses come to recognize foods as suitable by taste and smell and color, and our bodies learn what to do with these foods after they pass the test of the senses, producing in anticipation the chemicals necessary to break them down. Health depends on knowing how to read these biological signals: this smells spoiled; this looks ripe; that’s one good-looking cow. This is easier to do when a creature has long experience of a food, and much harder when a food has been designed expressly to deceive its senses — with artificial flavors, say, or synthetic sweeteners.

Note that these ecological relationships are between eaters and whole foods, not nutrients. Even though the foods in question eventually get broken down in our bodies into simple nutrients, as corn is reduced to simple sugars, the qualities of the whole food are not unimportant — they govern such things as the speed at which the sugars will be released and absorbed, which we’re coming to see as critical to insulin metabolism. Put another way, our bodies have a longstanding and sustainable relationship to corn that we do not have to high-fructose corn syrup. Such a relationship with corn syrup might develop someday (as people evolve superhuman insulin systems to cope with regular floods of fructose and glucose), but for now the relationship leads to ill health because our bodies don’t know how to handle these biological novelties. In much the same way, human bodies that can cope with chewing coca leaves — a longstanding relationship between native people and the coca plant in South America — cannot cope with cocaine or crack, even though the same ”active ingredients” are present in all three. Reductionism as a way of understanding food or drugs may be harmless, even necessary, but reductionism in practice can lead to problems.

Ok, back to this paper on mixed-race adults and obesity. I wonder (and this is pure hypothesis) if one of the driving factors behind the data is the absence of food culture. The best way to illustrate the point is to describe my own experience. My father was raised on a steady diet of Jewish-American foods, from pickled herring to brisket. If left to his own devices, he would eat nothing but pastrami on rye with a smearing of spicy mustard. My mother, on the other hand, was raised on a Pennsylvania-Dutch diet, full of agrarian dishes like mincemeat pie and pickled red-beet eggs. Her uncles were all corn farmers.

So what food culture did I inherit? A smattering of everything. I like most deli foods – gefilte fish remains a hurdle to overcome – and I’ve learned how to pickle my own red-beets. I always have lox in the fridge and one of my favorite recipes is for sweet-corn chicken soup. (Thanks, Grandma!) But the point is that my food culture is all a la carte – I pick and choose what I like and leave the rest. My eating habits are thoroughly post-modern, severed from any ethnic or cultural tradition. While that culinary freedom certainly comes with advantages – my pantry is stuffed with everything from dried sweet corn to sichuan pepper – I’ve also missed out on some evolved wisdom. A genuine food culture, after all, isn’t merely a collection of recipes – it’s a way of life.

So I wonder if part of the explanation for the link between mixed-race adults and obesity is that, like me, these people are less likely to inherit a set of culturally specific food traditions. Razib notes that this lack of food culture might also lead to a diet that doesn’t mesh well with genetics:

Different populations have different propensities toward different food stuffs; e.g., consider the amylase and lactase examples. Perhaps mixed-race children because of their bicultural background are exposed to a hodge-podge of dietary regimes which aren’t optimal to their genetic makeup, which are relatively recent and so might not have a ready made cuisine?


  1. #1 Grant Canyon
    August 4, 2008

    I think that ours is the first industrial food culture: processed, processed, processed and engineered to meet the demands for convenience and sugar/fat/calories. Ours is simply a very bad food culture (both esthetically and nutritionally.)

  2. #2 OftenWrongTed
    August 4, 2008

    Looking at Hawaii, there are several factors which contribute to eating habits of the obese population. First is money. The greatest mass of food comes from inexpensive plate lunches consisting of starch, sugar and fat. Fruits and vegetables are costly and are just not popular among this segment of the population. There are health food stores, asian cuisine, and other healthy options available in Hawaii, but the bottom line is that poor eating habits are passed on from one generation of portly people to the next generation. Education is lacking and even student lunches are mostly refined flour, white rice, and lacking in fruits and vegetables, again attributable to cost as well as preference. Obese people in Hawaii lead brief lives, suffering from diabetes and other diet related illnesses. There seems no end or reversal of this blight on the horizon. Local Medicine treats the disease while the causes continue.

  3. #3 jeffk
    August 5, 2008

    Ted: You’re not wrong, I guess, but is there anything you said that’s unique to Hawaii?

  4. #4 OftenWrongTed
    August 5, 2008

    Jeffk: Not that I am aware of: It is simply what I see daily.

  5. #5 Rachael
    August 5, 2008

    The only idea I object to:

    >are exposed to a hodge-podge of dietary regimes which aren’t optimal to their genetic makeup,

    I don’t think this has to do with genetic makeup; what cuisine should my multi-ethnic background (Polish, Hungarian, Russian, and, I think a few generations back, Pakistani) consume? Please don’t say Falafel Perogi :). My point is, genetic variation is too subtle to account for all of what we see in obesity rates.

    Growing up, my food culture was not great but not awful. We ate typical americana food, with a heavy dose of frozen lasagnas, stir-fry and KFC. I’m Jewish, but I didn’t try lox until my 20s. My father grew up in Argentina, but the only thing I know about his food culture is that he misses street vendor empanadas. My mother did not want to cook and my father did not have the time; neither were interested in their cultural backgrounds. Exercise was not at all a part of our lives.

    But my weight is fine, and I’m obsessed with good, healthy food and physical activity. I’ve developed a distinct food culture for myself that keeps my body quite healthy without being tied to a single culture or cuisine. Certainly the cuisines that I enjoy the most (Italian and certain components of Asian) are not any part of my genetic make-up. My point is that there isn’t enough subtlety in food culture for it to be genetic. I think I could maintain a healthy weight just as easily on bitter greens as I could on sushi, and nowhere in the development of food-culture and a healthy lifestyle have I sustained on chicken paprikash or brisket.

    (My hackles are probably raised about this concept because a friend just loaned me “Eat Right 4 Your Type” – ugh, awful pseudoscience)

    But I agree whole-heartedly about obesity and a lack of food culture. I just think you can create a healthy food culture independently from your genetics. I have interpreted Pollan’s argument to be that regional cuisines are tried and true (an instance of cultural evolution). Except in particular cases (lactose intolerance, damn those Jewish genes), I believe that eating an ethnic cuisine is about eating a complete, tested cuisine – not about matching my genetic code to the nutrients that I ingest.

  6. #6 sophia
    August 6, 2008

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  7. #7 Lee Pirozzi
    August 6, 2008

    What if we go back four or five generations and look at the most simplistic herbs and basic foods from the sides of both parents – taking it down to a minimal choice and eating one or the other only for a few months. I’m Irish, so I would fight for a potato over pasta, as would one son. The other two children favor pasta, and dad is Italian. One of the children will not touch and cannot stand the smell of fruit. He avoided talking to a girl in kindergarten because she had “Juice Breath”. He went ballistic when the dentist used fruit flavored toothpaste and displays nauseau on smelling berry fruit-juice drinks of siblings. He will eat bananas. Maybe there is a reason for this – such as allergy. Remember all the way back to the
    unavailability of meat at times, and the reliance on vegetarian and dairy choices. Maybe kids hate vegetables because our ancestors gave them dairy to prevent choking until all of their teeth were in. They didn’t have baby food and may not have bothered to make vegetables palatable to children for fear of choking.

    I don’t know – I’m just considering the observational ideas.
    Thanks – Lee

  8. #8 Clare
    August 7, 2008

    So how does this work for the U.K? The “food culture,” such as it is, is — if you take the generous view espoused by late cookery writer Jane Grigson — a long-established hybrid that actually isn’t as awful as people think so long as the principles of “locally grown/raised” are adhered to; or plain dripping in fat and sugar, a diet that Sidney Mintz tells us came in when plantation sugar became available to fire up the mill workers with high calorie afternoon teas and such. I don’t know off-hand how obesity rates compare there to the US, but here is a case where you don’t even need to have a mixed cultural heritage to have a completely muddled up food culture.

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