When HBO’s four-part documentary “The Weight of the Nation” (presented with the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Institutes of Health) premiered in mid-May, the media was overstuffed with stories on America’s virulent obesity epidemic. The films and accompanying website offer a full plate of resources and action recommendations for “changing the weight of a nation.” Throughout all the films, more than two dozen experts comment, including physicians, pediatricians, policy analysts, endocrinologists, epidemiologists, economists, and more. But perhaps the filmmakers should have included more biologists and anthropologists.
That conclusion is hard to resist after taking a look at the March/April 2012 issue of the American Journal of Human Biology, co-edited by Andrea S. Wiley, John S. Allen, and Alexandra Brewis. Wiley is professor of anthropology and director of the Human Biology program at IU Bloomington.
“Of course humans eat!” write Wiley and her co-editors in “Human biology eats”, the issue’s introduction. But what, how much, where, and why—and what the consequences for human biology are in the short and long term—are complex questions. “Food,” say the researchers, “is sufficiently important enough that we should, as human biologists, think more deeply and broadly about it.”
Wiley and her colleagues point out what seems a simply obvious point: food shapes our biological lives. On second look, though, the relationship between food and human biology is deeply complex, involving myriad aspects of our social and cultural lives. “Dietary behavior is cultural behavior,” the co-editors write, adding, “If society is to ever successfully translate scientific knowledge into public health policy aimed at improving diet and health, eating itself must be understood in the overall context of our human biology.”
In other words, to change the weight of our nation, we really need to understand a whole lot more about why we eat what we do. Scientists contributing to the journal examine how evolution affects our eating patterns, and how what we choose to eat is shaped deep-seated cognitive patterns. Other articles consider Paleolithic diets and food insecurity.
Wiley herself takes a close look at milk, Observing that humans are unique in consuming milk far beyond the traditional age of weaning and in consuming milk of a different mammal (usually cows), Wiley raises questions about how the continual consumption of cow milk affects human biology. Despite the ubiquity of the Got Milk? message that cow’s milk is good for us all, Wiley points to research that suggests milk consumption may accelerate growth or result in larger adult size. In other words, milk’s effects are not necessarily positive, such as early puberty and rapid growth in childhood. There is also some evidence that childhood milk intake could contribute to early menarche, which could have longer term negative health consequences.
In sum, write the co-editors, questions raised by biologists about food also raise questions about how this knowledge “can be brought to the attention of, and translated into, public health policy and other forms of public good. … As billions are spent on obesity prevention for those struggling with too much—often poor quality—food, how can we ensure that food meets both cultural and biochemical needs—that it is safe and appropriate? How can we create the most healthful developmental niches in an ever more complex and technologically oriented and ‘captive’ world?”
In 2007, the IU Bloomington Department of Anthropology became the first program in the world offering a Ph.D. in the social science of food. Learn more about how IU Bloomington studies food here.