We Don't Eat for Health

By: Ioulia Fenton  

As we sat in a TacoBell in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second city, I asked Irma what healthy eating meant to her. Sipping on her soda, she looked around the restaurant and said: “We don’t have that culture of caring for our health.” Comparing Guatemalans to foreigners, she suggested that she and her compatriots do not eat for health. Irma had put her finger on a missing link between ordinary Guatemalans and the city’s billboard promotions of “healthy,” slim white bodies, doctors’ and nutritionists’ individualized “eat healthy” interventions, and some restaurants’ promotions of health foods. These approaches have been influenced by specific ideas of individual, modern, European bodies that are thin, that exercise, and that eat health(y) foods. Yet, these messages resonated only with a small portion of Quetzaltenango’s residents. For others, there was more to eating than the end result of a healthy body, narrowly defined as individual, slim, light-skinned, and self-conscious. Anthropologists and sociologists have long recognized eating as an intensely social act (Farb and Armelagos 1980; Douglas 1984; Murcott 1983; Poulain 2017). This session details evidence from 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Guatemala on what counts as healthy eating, how healthy different foods are judged to be, and what and where Guatemala’s residents eat. I show that eating is linked to complex interactions between material, social, and symbolic aspects of people’s relationships to themselves, to each other, to their local food environment, and to Guatemala’s society at large. I end by discussing the practical implications of these findings.

Eating, Nutrition, Health
Food, Nutrition, and Health
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Ioulia Fenton

I am a PhD candidate in the department of anthropology at Emory University, Atlanta, GA. Broadly, I am interested in the long-term viability of human activity on the planet. Within that, I see food as an important factor that can connect health and sustainability movements around the world in order to accelerate positive change. I conducted my doctoral fieldwork in Guatemala, researching the drivers of both mainstream and alternative eating and farming practices in the country. My work shows the myriad important material, social, and symbolic factors that interact to affect how people choose to eat and/or grow food at any given moment. By embracing complexity over simplification, I seek to develop a dynamic theory of food systems change that can be used to devise practical solutions to Guatemala's food-related health and environmental issues.