Skip to content

The racism in healthy food

Why we need to stop telling others what to eat

Stuff goes in, and if your body is working properly, less stuff comes out. If too much bad food goes in and you don’t exercise, you gain weight. If you eat good food and you do more exercise, you get healthier.

That’s a pretty common line of logic. It’s also the basic argument of North America’s number one food guru, Michael Pollan. In a 2009 New York Times article, “Big food vs. big insurance,” Pollan links cheap bad food to the obesity ‘epidemic.’ The problem? That ‘bad’ food (like corn, potatoes, and wheat) is subsidized, making it cheaper, and people are eating too much of it, which has led to a rise in obesity. The solution? Stop subsidizing, and educate people to “vote with their fork” by buying locally and organically.

It turns out that this line of reasoning is totally false. It is also elitist, classist, racist, and fat-phobic. But before debunking Pollan, I want to put the discussion of food and health in a different context.

*  *  *

Anna Pringle is a student and food activist in Montreal. “Right now,” says Pringle, “one of the things I’ve been working on with other people is accessibility. How can we work on the idea of having healthy food for all, rather than healthy food being defined by very expensive organic food not for everyone? I don’t really know how much good moralizing is going to do for people when they just can’t afford to go to health food stores.”

Pringle is involved with the Food For All campaign, which works to improve access to food in Montreal, particularly undocumented migrants. In this work, she directly sees how food activism and racism can intersect. “If you want to start changing people’s health,” says Pringle, “you might want to be aware how that might be a racist act.”

Food racism happens when certain foods are excluded in favour of the dominant (white) culture’s idea of good food.

Why is it racist to say what food is healthy and what food isn’t? For one, this presupposes that the food from one culture is more ‘nutritious’ than that of another. Two clear examples: Canada’s Food Guide and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Pyramid. In both, dairy is seen as cornerstone food group, despite findings that in the U.S., 70 per cent of African Americans, 74 per cent of Indigenous Americans, 90 per cent of Asian Americans, and 53 per cent of Mexican Americans are lactose intolerant. On the flip side, high-calcium foods traditional to some of these cultures (for example, collard greens) are not included.  Food racism happens when certain foods are excluded in favour of the dominant (white) culture’s idea of good food.

Secondly, health itself is racialized. As Pringle says, it involves “saying that a certain type of body is better than other types of bodies.”

Ideas of health often presume a certain type of body. This doesn’t take into account how other cultures see health, nor does it acknowledge that the dominant idea of a ‘healthy body’ in North American media is most often thin and white. Healthy bodies shouldn’t be defined by what they look like.

*  *  *

Julie Guthman, writer and professor at UC Santa Cruz, takes aim at Pollan’s simplistic argument in her 2011 book, Weighing in: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism. Guthman completely destroys the idea that the obesity epidemic is caused by eating too much bad food.

First of all, she shows that it’s not just governmental subsidies that make for cheap food. Cheap food is driven by cheap labour. In the U.S., food was able to be cheap firstly by stealing ‘cheap’ land from natives, then, by importing ‘cheap’ slave labour, and later still, by importing Europeans to do ‘cheap’ labour in return for the promise of their own land (also stolen), and now by making use of ‘cheap’ migrant labour from south of the highly-securitized U.S. border. Fast food is cheap because it went to great lengths to destroy unions, taking away employees’ bargaining power, pushing wages as low as possible. What makes for cheaper food? The exploitation of people already in precarious situations. Then it’s fed back to those of us who can’t afford otherwise, further exacerbating reliance on a destructive food system.

It seems that people are more interested in proving why fat people are eating too much than actually examining what environmental factors affect people negatively.

Second, an obesity ‘epidemic’ simply isn’t caused by too many people eating too much. As Guthman says, “The evidence is just not there that people eat more calories than they did a generation ago or that different socioeconomic groups eat different amounts of calories.” Guthman points to research that instead implicates epigenetics, toxins in food packaging, and environmental toxins as factors that may have caused a rise in the average body-mass index. The energy balance model, where more high-energy food has a direct, causal link to more obese people, just doesn’t hold up.

Third, there’s a big problem when we link size to health. The problem is what Guthman calls co-production: when scientific assumptions actually become the variables. For example, most studies evaluating causes of obesity only measure variables that are assumed to cause obesity: the number of gyms in an area, the number of ‘healthy’ grocery stores, the number of fast food stores. In other words, people think fatness is the problem, and then try to prove it by seeking factors they assume cause fatness. This is not just a chicken-or-egg problem, it’s fat-phobia. It seems that people are more interested in proving why fat people are eating too much than actually examining what environmental factors affect people negatively.

Guthman argues that we need to go beyond shaming fat bodies. She turns to fat activists to show how this can be done. “Health at every size” is the most well-known slogan of the fat acceptance movement. This movement aims to battle the stigma against fat bodies. The slogan strikes at the heart of the mistaken assumption that weight and health are intrinsically linked. One issue with the slogan, however, is that it still prioritizes health over weight. Everyone should be respected, regardless of how healthy or unhealthy they seem to be.

*  *  *

What should the food movement’s slogan be? It shouldn’t be Pollan’s “vote with your fork,” that’s for sure. This excludes those who can’t vote, from lack of time, money, or privilege. It also shouldn’t be “good food for all,” as this takes for granted that it’s even possible to define what good food is, requires someone to judge what food is good, and what food everyone should be eating.

I can’t really think of an appropriate slogan for a food movement. Maybe this whole sloganeering thing is not for me. I ask my friends, Grace and Micah, sitting by me as I type late into the night, what they think.

“Eat to live!” Grace shouts, punching their fist in the air, mouth full of salad.

“I like it. It keeps it real. That’s why we eat,” says Micah.

I like it too. It’s about affirming people’s choices and people’s struggles, while emphasizing how the food we eat can be harmful, not because it makes us bigger, but because some can choose and some cannot.

A Bite of Food Justice is a column discussing inequity in the food system while critiquing contemporary ideals of sustainability. Aaron Vansintjan can be reached at