by Bee Wilson
Basic Books, 2019
Review by Christian Perring on Jun 4th 2019
The Way We Eat Now takes a sociological and anthropological approach to trends in modern eating. Bee Wilson, a British food writer who performs the audiobook version of her book herself, combines a personal approach with an awareness of modern culture and recent scholarship. There is a 16 page bibliography and 20 pages of notes. It is a book that could be used in an undergraduate course and might spark the interest of students.
Wilson addresses a variety of aspects of modern food, and there's a great deal of overlap between chapters. The central theme comes from the Nutrition Transition, an historical pattern seen in many countries as they develop, starting with a hunter-gatherer society, moving to agriculture, thus ending famine, and then overeating leading to obesity. The final stage is behavior change, which is Wilson's primary interest -- how our current world is reacting to the prevalence of obesity. She quickly dismisses the idea that there is a problem of greediness and weak will, saying that an individual approach to diet does not work and moralizing is not useful. She focuses on social movements and political responses to out current health crisis.
Wilson tends to be skeptical about many theories of nutrition about how we should eat, seeing them as trends without much scientific backing. But she does see modern health problems as the product of a move in our diet from vegetables and small portions of meat to eating large quantities of processed food that is high in salt, sugar and fat, with little nutritional value. While she does not put it in these terms, she is essentially providing a critique of unfettered capitalism that drives people's tastes through advertising and focuses on maximizing profits rather than providing good food. Much of this book would provide excellent material for courses in business ethics or food ethics, and dramatically shows that large food corporations have a great deal to answer for in creating current health problems around the world.
The analyses of the book often address poverty, race and ethnicity, and injustice. She shows how vulnerable people have been exploited and targeted by corporations, and how local food cultures have disappeared with the homogenization of food choices around the world. Many of her examples are surprising. The Czech people are famous for their heavy Bohemian bread, but it turns out that these days they are eating a great deal more white bread. In Colombia, many traditional meals are becoming lost to memory: WIlson gives the example of the egg and milk soup called changua. There are many other examples throughout the book, from all over the world, and they often challenge our presumptions about the practices of other nations.
Different chapters address different aspects of the issues, though they are not very well differentiated. She addresses food trends, snacking, cooking, meal times, advertising, supermarkets, food education, corporate profits, and recipes. There is also a great deal about the pleasure of good food and the satisfaction of cooking one's own food, as well as the enjoyment of street food and restaurant meals. These all tend to get mixed together in each chapter, but Wilson gets her message across without being confusing.
The book ends with an epilogue of recommendations about how to improve one's own eating habits -- such as use smaller plates and snack less. Including such suggestions is useful, but is also rather at odds with Wilson's opening assumptions that these social problems are not really individual ones. It suggests the obvious thought that they are both social and individual, and while it may be unproductive and even counterproductive to blame people for their poor personal food choices, it is still true that they are personal choices. There may be interventions at an individual level which do help, if we can find ones that work.
So The Way We Eat Now is useful not just as a reflection on international trends in health and food consumption, but also as a way to think about our own eating, and the eating of our friends and families. It's a profound book that is also enjoyable to read, or at least to dip into.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.