“The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World” is a fascinating and well-researched book about changes in eating and meal habits over time. Bee Wilson is a British writer and historian of food and author of several previous books on the topic.
Although the author does review well-known disturbing trends related to the consumption of more sugared and prepared foods, the book goes far beyond that. She discusses the economics of food production and distribution, changing habits of mealtimes and even the fundamental re-evaluation of the idea of food and meals.
On the one hand, food is much more international and eclectic than it has ever been. There are Chinese, Italian, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, Greek and endless other sorts of ethnic restaurants in any modest-sized city and sometimes even in small towns and rural areas. More people are familiar with more types of food than they have ever been. However, the food that has most widely permeated the world palate is highly processed, nutrient-poor, packaged, sugary “junk food.” Even much allegedly “healthy” food, such as sweetened yogurt, fruit juice or energy bars, are heavily sugared and empty calories.
The economics of food production all favor the purchase and consumption of highly processed sugary foods over fruits and vegetables. Agricultural subsidies, direct and indirect, tend to favor industrial-style food production rather than small vegetable farmers. Prepackaged, ready-to-eat snacks are cheap, while fresh produce is always more expensive and often hard to find at all in some so-called “food deserts” in poor urban or rural areas without a nearby grocery. In fact, the heaviest consumption of processed food occurs among the poor in wealthy nations and especially in developing countries. Wilson extensively discusses Mexico as a particular case study of rapidly adopting junk food and its concomitant health consequences, such as diabetes.
Even healthy foods are no longer as healthy as they used to be. The rise of monoculture and export agriculture over the last several decades has favored varieties of fruits and vegetables, for example, that look attractive and have a long shelf life, rather than the ones which are the most nutritious. For example, most of the bananas consumed in the world today are a variety called Cavendish, a relatively bland and less nutritious fruit that is easy to grow rapidly in tropical countries, almost entirely for shipment to developed nations. It is blight-resistant and has a long shelf life, both essential attributes for profitable, large-scale export agriculture. Everywhere bananas are grown, the many other indigenous varieties of the fruit are disappearing to make more room to grow more Cavendish for export.
Many people, even those with primary responsibilities in the home, no longer really know how to cook. Yes, there is a rise in interest in cooking shows and celebrity chefs, but that interest has not translated into better eating in most homes. Even for more skilled cooks, food preparation is increasingly seen as a project for special occasions, such as entertaining, not as an everyday activity.
In the chapter on times of eating, Wilson argues persuasively that many people don’t really have real mealtimes any more. The situation is worse than merely families no longer sharing dinner together. Many people today consume most of their food by “grazing” and snacking throughout the day, rather than ever sitting down to a meal, even by themselves. She argues this is at considerable social, as well as nutritional, cost.
Wilson also deplores the habit of eating lunch quickly at one’s work desk. She argues that the custom of breaking from work to gather with others for a meal is an important social encounter that we are in danger of losing. She cites a fascinating case of a 19th-century factory where people worked 12-hour days, plus Saturday mornings, but they also had a 90-minute break for a sit-down lunch. Even though failing to acknowledge the downside of requiring such sweatshop hours, the employers apparently nonetheless recognized the importance of a time for socialization and relaxation in the middle of the workday.
There even are a few people who have stopped eating food altogether, replacing it by protein shakes and varieties of smoothies. Even if they manage to consume the needed food groups, what else is being lost?
This is a very thoughtful book that gives the reader a lot to “chew on,” going far beyond the usual common critique of how we all eat so badly. Wilson argues that the profound changes in diet and eating habits go far beyond slipping into eating fewer vegetables and more sweet treats.
Richard Harris is a professor emeritus of psychological sciences at K-State.