A Feature Review of
The Way We Eat Now:
How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World
On a recent trip to the grocery store, I attempted to count the variety of products in the chip aisle. I gave up pretty quickly. It was easily over 100. Potato chips, corn chips, veggie twirls, pretzels and more were all stacked in colorful rows of appetizing crunchy saltiness.
In The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World, author Bee Wilson explores the complicated processes that have led to problems like grocery stores that have so many things to choose from yet so few things that are nourishing. Wilson draws on a wide range of fields including psychology, sociology, and food science to give us a thorough look at the complicated relationship we have with food.
Wilson has been examining this complicated relationship for some time. In two previous books and numerous articles, she has examined what we eat, how we cook it, and how we eat it. The Way We Eat Now is a detailed overview of those topics from individual perspectives and from global considerations as well. There are plenty of books that examine various aspects of our relationship to food, but Wilson’s work offers a comprehensive view for anyone interested in knowing more about the world’s current nutrition dilemma.
What is the problem with what and how we eat? Fortunately, we have a large amount of food in the world, but unfortunately, many people still go hungry and many who have food are still unhealthy. As Wilson points out on early in the book, “As of 2006, for the first time the number of overweight and obese people in the world overtook the number who were underfed.” and “billions of people across the globe are simultaneously overfed and undernourished” (5).
The Way We Eat Now is centered on the Western diet, particularly how we eat in the UK (where Wilson lives) and in the United States, but Wilson looks at the nutrition of many countries from all over the world. She reviews numerous studies and helps to synthesize them in a way that is understandable for any reader interested in the topic, regardless of their current location or nutritional environment.
Wilson’s overview is well-written and draws on an extensive bibliography. One of the sources she draws from is Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Wilson explores Popkin’s work to explore four stages of nutrition transition that societies seem to go through. Though diets vary from culture to culture and different groups are in different parts of these stages, the four areas are basically hunter-gatherer, agricultural, receding famine and the currently predominant stage of rapid change trending toward homogeneous food sources.
None of the four stages that Wilson explores is ideal. Hunter-gatherers had relatively good nutrition, with a wide variety of plants and animals to eat, but being a hunter-gatherer is not an easy life, nor is it practical for most people in the modern era. Those depending strictly on primarily grain-based agriculture are able to store food and develop larger civilizations, but are also highly susceptible to famine. In the third stage, receding famine, people move from a diet of primarily grains, and food becomes not only about how to survive, but how to thrive as the improved diet helps to fight things like scurvy and beriberi. Wilson points out that some African countries are currently in this stage and as a result, their diets actually compare favorably to many areas that are in the fourth stage.
Most Western nations are firmly in stage four, but they are not alone, and because of their reach, all nations are influenced by the rapid changes occurring in stage four. We have a seemingly endless variety of food available in our grocery stores and restaurants, but these foods are largely made up of a small number of ingredients. Wilson discusses the effects of narrowing diversity as we move away from the variety of stage three nutrition and towards a market that consists primarily of animal foods, wheat, rice, sugar, maize, and soybeans.
It’s not hard to see the many changes that have occurred in this stage over the past few decades. Higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes and obesity are being seen all over the world, even in areas where such nutrition related problems were previously rare. We eat larger portions, we cook less, and we have come to see food merely as fuel, rather than as a necessary and enjoyable part of life and culture.
Our food problems are not caused only by what we eat, but also by how we eat. Men who moved from Japan to the United States in the 1960s found their rates of heart disease going up, but not solely from what they ate, but also how they ate it. Those who stuck with the food and rituals of their background saw better results than those who adopted a more American way of eating, regardless of the makeup of their meals. Wilson points out that “…an organic salad gulped won in a state of anxiety and solitude is not necessarily a healthier meal than a takeaway of fish and chips enjoyed at leisure with friends” (115).
This is just one example of the problems that we have developed in our current stage of the nutrition transition, but it’s not hard to find many similar examples. Consider that in 1999, Americans were eating twenty-two pounds of commercial snacks per person per year on average. Trends show that number is probably higher at this point in time, especially since we now have more “healthy” snacks available. If consumers shy away from snacks that seem less healthy, food companies will develop other foods that while they seem more healthy, are still far from ideal.
None of our current food dilemma is easy to unravel or solve, but Wilson does not leave the reader with just a pile of examples and data to weed through. She looks at success stories that exist throughout the world. South Korea, for example, has emphasized vegetables and traditional Korean foods while also taking steps to prevent the domination of sugary drinks and snacks, and as a result they’ve held off the increases in obesity and illnesses connected to a more modern diet.
There are a wide range of issues that Wilson lays out in her attempts to help us clearly view the current nutritional landscape. She’s aware that improving our health is not just a matter of telling people to eat their vegetables, but depends on a wide range of socioeconomic issues and ways that our current environment leads us to view food. Though Wilson does a fairly exhaustive examination of the many aspects of nutrition, she does not write at all about the impact of religion on food. She refers briefly to halal food and Jain cuisine, but doesn’t go into any depth about this particular aspect of how we eat, despite religion playing a large part in what and how we eat. Her seeming lack of interest on that topic shouldn’t prevent anyone from picking up The Way We Eat Now, and there are such books available, but it is notable.
There are probably as many food books available in the book store as there are bags of chips at the grocery, but in The Way We Eat Now, Bee Wilson provides us with an overview of how we got to our current nutritional age and gives us ideas and examples of how we might move into another phase. Ideally, we would all have access to diverse and healthy foods and have time to prepare them and enjoy them together. Wilson shows us how we might find a more positive transformation of our lives, our bodies and our world.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com