or Who Says Food Isn’t Medicine?
The exhortation ‘food isn’t medicine’ is doing the rounds on social media again.
It’s posted by healthcare professionals who share a concern about the impact of nutritionism, strongly allied with diet culture. Good. All food workers should raise awareness of harmful practices that masquerade as beneficial. We should all be arguing against nutritionism.
Nutritionism is a way of thinking about nutrition that turns food into a means of nutrient transfer and turns bodies into calorie-burning machines whose inner workings are fine-tuned by the calibrated delivery of nutritional substances.
Nutritionism arises from a western take on wellbeing, and eating, and what matters, that is rooted in a model of isolation. It isolates nutrients from foods, lineage, land. It isolates foods from eaters’ physiology, feelings, ancestors, companions, festivals. You get the idea.
So yes, let’s undo nutritionism. It’s a hazardous ideology that fuels suffering around eating and self-worth. It also disregards the earth. It embeds a false narrative of individual responsibility, for disease, and much else. This individualism contributes to, and glosses over, the very many sources of data in and beyond western science that show oppression and trauma are the real causes of health inequity.
Of course, we can never know everything about how chemicals in food interact with other substances. It’s impossible to precisely document the impact that our mood, taste preferences, cultural upbringing, and a zillion other variables might have on our digestion and metabolism at any given time. That’s not what I’m getting at. Nutritionism isn’t a problem of gaps in a western nutritional knowledge base. It’s the imposition of a specific — neoliberal, colonial, capitalist — value system and thought system called scientism that is catastrophic.
This thought system sharpens the tools of white supremacy. By imposing separation, nutritionism denies inter-connection. This is crucial to the epistemological manoeuvre — known as binary thinking — that sets the genocidal, earth-ruining, disaster of white supremacy in motion.
We need to do all we can to dismantle a white supremacist mindset.
The thing is that ‘food isn’t medicine’ doesn’t do this. It’s anti-nutritionism and anti-diet but it’s not anti-racist. In fact, it’s a glaring example of scientific imperialism.
I mean, who says food isn’t medicine — Christopher Columbus?
Food is medicine in many Indigenous cosmologies.
The insistence that food isn’t medicine emerges from and perpetuates the Eurocentric belief in universalism. Namely, ‘there’s one serious way of thinking about what matters and it’s our way. And food isn’t medicine’.
Health justice requires a value system that disturbs notions of white superiority, not one that blithely organises to protect it.
‘Food isn’t medicine’ implies Indigenous people’s wisdom isn’t worthy of serious consideration and can be sacrificed for non-Indigenous people’s therapeutic gain. It uses the knife of white supremacist (diet) logic to separate out Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and then centres white wellbeing.
‘It is impossible that food can be medicine’ is exactly what the colonial machinery of erasure wants us to believe. Because it is still trying to wipe out peoples and cultures where food is medicine that survived historical genocide.
Of course no-one intended to replicate racism by calling out nutritionism. But that’s what’s happened.
As white food workers we need to be really really careful about how we build theory. Yes, we need to undo nutritionism, promote fat rights, be anti-oppressive, prevent eating disorders, choose social justice, and reject diet logic. But look, devaluing Indigenous food ways as remedy for the ills of colonial scientism enacts white supremacist values. For the record, we’re back at diet logic.
Clearly that’s a harmful rationale. Interrupting nutritionism and supporting self-care is essential, what this shows is it isn’t enough to do it any old how. By grappling with our conditioning we can come to apprehend the world as dynamically inter-connected. Then we get to explore self-care, and whiteness, in ways that activate deep social change.
Once we accept our western education in nutrition as biased we know to bring a hefty skepticism to everything we think and say. We know from the outset that our ideas are distorted by white supremacy and will insist on scholarly rigour. We train ourselves out of the enthralment of believing our own expertise and assume a different stance. One that uplifts BIPOC voices. One that encourages our open-hearted open-minded inquiry into the life-affirming mysteries of inter-Beingness. And incites us to repair the consequences of our complicity with collective accountability. Partly by sharing posts like this, for instance.