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Knowing and eating: a brief western history of nutrition paradigms

Faculty Advisor




food studies, nutritional paradigms, modern nutritionism

Abstract (summary)

As a sociologist, I have long maintained that food is cultural. Food ties us to our childhoods, to our families and their ancestral histories, and to our cultures and their traditions. What we eat today—our tastes and distastes—is a reflection of those cultural histories. What we eat today is also a reflection of our access to various foods, whether through geographical location and food availability, or through the social determinants of health, such as income, affordable housing, and job security, which affect our ability to procure and prepare food. While food can be studied through a range of disciplinary lenses (psychological, anthropological, biological, etc.), this chapter analyzes how historic framings of food shape contemporary understandings of health. To understand why we eat the way we eat, we also have to examine the changing social and historical paradigms in and through which we come to know food, and, correspondingly, frame health and nutrition. This chapter offers a broad overview of three paradigm shifts in Western nutritional wisdom: (a) ancient humourism; (b) the Middles Ages and the Doctrine of Signatures; and (c) modern nutritionism. Knowledge about food is contingent and changes over time, depending on the values circulating at any given historical moment.

Publication Information

Overend, A. (2022). Knowing and eating: A brief western history of nutrition paradigms. In D. Szanto, A. Di Battista, & I. Knezevic (Eds.), Food studies: Matter, meaning, and movement (pp. 297-313).



Item Type

Book Chapter



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