July 31, 2020

Credit: CSA Images / Getty Images

*This piece was originally published on January 31st, 2020

It was once a virtue to have some excess weight, kids weren’t considered picky eaters, and the term “overweight” didn’t even exist. What changed? Helen Zoe Veit, an associate professor of history at Michigan State University, and author of “Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century,” joined us to talk about how America began to moralize the food that we eat  —  or don’t eat. 

Three Takeaways:

  • During WWI, there was no formal rationing in the United States. Instead, informal surveillance was encouraged to make sure everyone was doing their part to cut back. In this way, food began to become a moral issue. The logic was that if you could reduce your consumption, then you were living up to your national, democratic duty. Having extra weight came to mean a lack of self control, and a lack of self control meant a lack of patriotism.
  • Weight-loss culture firmly took hold in the U.S. in the 1920s for other reasons besides the war effort, too. Hollywood and visual media were growing, enabling Americans see other bodies like never before. Clothes were beginning to be mass produced with standardized sizes, letting Americans compare their bodies to one another in a new way. And nutrition science was a growing field, letting Americans think about the metrics of their food in new ways.
  • Viewing our children as picky eaters only came into vogue in America in the 1940s. In the past, children had not only eaten whatever adults ate, but being seen as a “childish eater” meant that you would eat anything. One factor in this change was that the field of mainstream psychology was gaining influence, and prominent psychologists like Dr. Benjamin Spock were claiming that forcing a child to eat something they didn’t want or letting a child go to bed without dinner could be psychologically damaging.

More reading:

  • We talked about how the pickiness we see in kids today isn’t something that always existed, but parents today are feeling the pressure to get their kids to eat healthy and are going to great lengths to do so. This article from the New York Times delves into what it can mean for children to be not only health conscious but weight conscious from a young age.
  • When Crisco was unveiled in 1911, lots of consumers probably had no idea what was in it. Proctor and Gamble had worked for years on hydrogenating vegetable oil in a lab. But, since there were no labels required until the 1960s, the success of Crisco blazed a trail for products like Spam, Froot Loops, and Cheetos - all popular with consumers, but frequently a mystery in the ingredient department. Read more about Crisco here.
  • Obesity is on the rise globally, but researchers warn it’s at epidemic levels in the U.S. A new study predicts that by 2030, “severe obesity will likely be the most common BMI category for women, non-Hispanic black adults, and those with annual incomes below $50,000 per year.” You can find the full study here

food, eating, helen zoe viet, weight loss, nutrition, Culture

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