Nutritional Anthropology

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NUTRITIONAL ANTHROPOLOGY. Many cultural anthropologists and sociologists who are interested in food and food systems examine the interrelationships of social, cultural, and economic factors as they relate to food use. In contrast, nutritional anthropology refers to a field of study at the interface of anthropology and nutritional sciences focused particularly on understanding how the interactions of social and biological factors affect the nutritional status of individuals and populations. This does not mean that all research in nutritional anthropology involves measurement of nutritional status, and many studies in this field do not include biological outcomes in their research design. However, they differ from studies in the "anthropology of food" because their basic aim is to understand how the physical well-being of humans is affected by their food systems, while cultural anthropologists and sociologists analyze food use in order to understand how social and cultural systems work.

In their investigations, nutritional anthropologists use methods from both the social and biological sciences, which they also draw on in developing theories and testing hypotheses. Occasionally, they turn to humanistic scholarship as a source of insights into the cultural and historical aspects of food. The field can be characterized, therefore, as a biocultural discipline, which emphasizes the importance of integrating multiple perspectives on human behavior and experience in explaining nutrition.

The types of research undertaken by nutritional anthropologists can be classified into the following main categories: (1) sociocultural processes and nutrition; (2) social epidemiology of nutrition; (3) cultural and ideational systems and nutrition; (4) physiological adaptation, population genetics, and nutrition; and (5) applied research for nutrition programs.

Investigations in the category of sociocultural processes and nutrition are often focused on large-scale processes of change, such as globalization, modernization, urbanization, changing women's roles, and technological change in order to understand how these processes affect food and nutrition. While many investigators conduct studies in which they examine the effects in a specific location of a particular manifestation of change (for example, rural to urban migration in a particular developing country), others are concerned with understanding how large-scale changes have affected nutritional conditions across many populations. For example, nutritional anthropologists have studied the consequences for nutrition of a shift from foraging-hunting to agriculture. Studies of the effects on nutrition of a shift from subsistence farming to cash cropping are another example.

Nutritional anthropological research that falls into the category of social epidemiology and nutrition includes a range of topics, for example, describing how particular social and cultural factors place people at risk for nutritional problems or identifying health problems related to nutrition. Among the topics that have attracted attention are the social and ecological determinants of vitamin A deficiency and other micronutrient deficiencies, interactions of socioeconomic and cultural factors that adversely affect growth in infants and young children, and the functional consequences of malnutrition in childhood and adulthood.

Studies in the area of cultural and ideational systems and nutrition are often aimed at understanding how particular beliefs relate to food selection, including food prescriptions and proscriptions. Among the topics investigated by nutritional anthropologists who link their work to public health issues are the ways culturally structured food avoidances during pregnancy or childhood illness affect health outcomes. For example, studies have been conducted on how beliefs about illness and food affect the treatment and household management of children with diarrhea.

There has been a long-standing interest among biocultural anthropologists in the interactions of cultural, physiological, and genetic adaptations in relation to food systems and nutritional patterns. One type of research that falls within this general category includes studies of behavioral adaptations that permit people to create and sustain diets that, over the long run, would be untenable biologically without such adaptations. For example, in Central America, ancient cultures developed the technique of soaking maize kernels in an alkaline solution, which improves its amino acid composition and the bioavailability of the B vitamin, niacin. Without these improvements, a population that subsisted on maize as its primary staple food would be at risk of serious malnutrition.

Another area of research in nutritional anthropology is the relationship between genetic variability in populations and food consumption patterns. A specific topic that falls within this area is the matter of lactose tolerance. Anthropologists have sought to understand how it is possible for adults in some populations to consume milk when the common pattern is for humans to lose their capacity to digest lactose after childhood. The role of this genetic trait has been explored in relation to the development of dairy-based food economies in northern Europe and some regions in Africa. It is likely that there will be an expansion of this type of research with the development of new techniques and knowledge in nutritional genomics.

In addition to conducting basic research, some nutritional anthropologists also engage in applied research, undertaken in direct support of public health activities. Often, investigations in this category involve community-level investigations, although applied nutritional anthropology may also be carried out for the purpose of informing national or international nutrition policy and planning. Studies at the community level may focus on identifying the sociocultural factors to be taken into account in instituting intervention activities (formative research) or in process evaluations to see how these factors are affecting the utilization of programs.

Applied anthropological studies in nutrition and health have been facilitated by the development of manuals for Rapid Assessment Procedures (RAP) or Focused Ethnographic Studies (FES). For example, with the aid of manuals, short-term qualitative studies have been conducted in planning interventions to improve vitamin A status in deficient populations and for interventions intended to improve the feeding of infants and young children.

As would be anticipated for a field that cuts across the disciplinary boundaries of the biological and social sciences, nutritional anthropology is eclectic in the scope of its theories and methods. Within that broad scope, however, one can identify a number of commonalities, including: (1) a focus on populations rather than studying individuals without consideration of the larger group of which they are a part; (2) a focus on communities and households as key social units that affect nutrition; and (3) a mixed method approach that utilizes both qualitative and quantitative techniques for data collection and analysis.

See also Anthropology and Food; Food Archaeology; Nutrition; Prehistoric Societies.


Counihan, Carole, and Penny van Esterik, eds. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

Goody, Jack. Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Messer, Ellen. "Anthropological Perspectives on Diet." Annual Review of Anthropology 13 (1984): 205249.

Stinson, Sara. "Nutritional Adaptation." Annual Review of Anthropology 21 (1992): 143170.

Gretel Pelto