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Why the environment we live in impacts what we eat

July 7, 2018
Szymon Zurek
7 min
a veggie basket featuring carrots, onions and beets

Why the environment we live in impacts what we eat

There are many different factors that decide on the different nourishment habits people adopt. As there is major inequality in western countries due to capitalist ideologies, many sociologists and nutritionists such as Graham, Stolte, Hodgetts and Chamberlain (2016) believe and try to point towards issues surrounding ideologies and therefore often get lost within politics where it is often argued that the cause of poor nourishment habits is inequality and the lack of financial support. Financial inequality is a part of the causes as to why people have different nourishment habits; however, it is far from being the main reason for such differences. Topics that are unlikely to be found in the mainstream researches about different nourishment habits involve: the impact of culture and culinary discipline, the impact of location, the impact of the environment, the mindsets of people and their knowledge about nutrition. In this essay, I will argue that the environment we live in, as well as the location, has the biggest impact on our nourishment habits.

The World

When looking at how location impacts the different nourishment habits, a good place to start is to look at the entire world and how different regions manufacture different foods due to their geographical placement, history, culture and tradition (see figure 1). It is also important to remember that the environment (culture, tradition/history, culinary disciplines) is an effect of the location.

(Figure 1) Amaç Herdağdelen, Yaneer Bar-Yam (2011). Global Grain Consumption Map. Retrieved from: http://necsi.edu/research/economics/grainconsumption.html

Japan

A known example of a country that has different nourishment habits is Japan (but also other countries based in the Asian continent). There is a dedicated study which compares the Japanese nourishment habits with the American nourishment habits and talks about different factors such as prices, culture, geographical location, history, and the physical exercise in both. Senauer and Gemma (1994) state, “the traditional Japanese diet with its emphasis on rice, vegetables, and fish, with very little fat, is very conducive to maintaining a pattern of lower calorie consumption.” (page 8) And, according to Asian Recipe (n.d.), rice and fish were adopted into the Japanese kitchen a long time ago due to the location of the country as well as its history. As Japan is located on four main islands with thousands of other smaller islands surrounding the main ones, the fishing industry has flourished but prior to that, Japan had experienced mostly vegan diets due to religions coming from the settlers. Due to these diets and the environments the Japanese people are in (with healthy food and lifestyle being a part of their culture), World Health Organization (WHO) has discovered that Japan has the highest life expectancy, reaching an average of 83.4 years (Tomoko Otake, 2017).

America

For a long time, America and to be more exact the United States of America, has shaped the food industry across the world, starting from manufacturing high capacities of corn, ending on the high development of fast food restaurants. Corleone states that “The typical American plate is filled with refined grains, foods with added sugar and fats, meat and poultry”. (reference?) According to research done by Glanz, Basil, Maibach, Goldberg and Snyder (1998), Americans base their food choices mostly on how well it tastes. This is indirectly tied to the fact of the location and the environment of the USA citizens and their history. As America in the past had major success in the industrial era and huge boosts in the economy due to the fact that it was isolated from European wars, it was common for the ‘common folks’ to search for simple luxuries such as tasty food. This history has impacted the American food consumption culture and therefore when newly born Americans grow up, they are impacted by their culture and environment (which was structured because of the location America is in) to consume certain foods for different reasons. As the American culture and the ‘dreamer’ culture has expanded into the world, fast food has become more attractive to busy people. This directly affects the life expectancy of Americans down to 79.3 years average according to WHO in 2017.

Poland

In the mid-1600s, King John III Sobieski introduced potatoes into Poland and demanded that farmers start growing them, which has impacted the number of potatoes consumed by the Slav regions. Throughout history, the Slav countries have potatoes as their main calorie providers in their main dishes. History has impacted the culinary culture which is all due to the location of Poland and its neighbouring countries. Even though potatoes did not originate from European terrains, due to the fact that Poland was and is located in central Europe,. As potatoes were nutritious and cheap to produce, especially during the rough winters, the culture of consumption of potato was spreading due to the fact that it was an accessible food during hard times and wars. To this day we can see from Figure 2 that the potato remains one of the cheapest vegetables for its weight, meaning that it is also still the cheapest to produce.

(Figure 2)

Ping, J. (2013). What are the Cheapest Vegetables Per Pound?. Retrieved from: http://www.mymoneyblog.com/cheapest-vegetables.html

Rural and Urban Areas

According to a study in the USA by Adrian and Daniel (1976), income has a direct impact on what kind of foods people eat and spend money on. In this study, it has been shown that people with higher income (>$15000+^ yearly income) eat fewer carbohydrates while eating more proteins and the opposite was proven for people who had lower income ($8000-$1200 yearly income). For the rest of the parameters like fat, vitamin A, calcium, iron, vitamin C, and thiamine it was measured that poorer people had experienced less weekly nutrition intake than wealthier people. However, Adrian and Daniel say, “The positive income elasticities add credence to policy aimed at generating nutritionally adequate diets through income transfers, but their relatively small magnitudes indicate that nutrient consumption is not highly responsive to income”. (1976). From the statistics as well as what Adrian and Daniel say, income does not have much of an effect on the nourishment habits of people.

Adrian and Daniel claim that due to the food production people have access to in the rural areas, there is an increase in nourishment consumption compared to the people who live in the urban areas. This increase of nourishment consumption in rural areas is also likely to have taken place because of the knowledge it requires the rural people to have in order to produce food. It is clear from this study that income has little impact on the nutritious habits people have. However, the location of people (rural vs urban), which also impacts the knowledge people acquire to do with food, is quite heavily tied to their nourishment habits. What also impacts the big difference between people who live in the rural and urban areas, is the fact that urban areas are more susceptible to unhealthy food as the unhealthy food is more accessible.

Access to fruit and vegetables in neighbourhoods

An interesting study was conducted in New Zealand by Pearce, Hiscock, Blakely and Witten (2008) which explores the idea of how food supplier access in neighbourhoods could have an impact on the nourishment habits or rather the consumption of food. The authors have said that “This study has found little evidence that poor locational access to food retail provision is associated with lower fruit and vegetable consumption. However, before rejecting the common-sense notion […], research that measures fruit and vegetable access more precisely and direct research is required”. While the authors of the study recommend further research to take place, it does give some indication that when it comes to towns and neighbourhoods, location and the environment has little to no impact on the nourishment habits of people. However, this is a big assumption to make as other cultures could have a different impact on the same situation and since this study was based in New Zealand it is hard to say if other countries would have the same experience. What should be noted, however, is the link between rural and urban areas and how they impact each other. For example, a place such as the Manawatu region in New Zealand is focused on farming and therefore often the prices for vegetables and fruits are lower leading to a higher consumption of nuisance for the people who live in the Manawatu region.

CONCLUSION

It seems that location has a big impact on nourishment habits on a world scale when the location dictates the environment and therefore also affects the region’s culture, religion, tradition and natural goods. The further we decrease the scope and the more we consider niche places such as towns or neighbourhoods, it is evident that location has little to no impact on nourishment habits of different people. It seems that the biggest factors that impact the matter are to do with the mindset of people and their culture which all leads back to the environment and location. We can see that dramatically different nourishment habits of people stop when we limit the scope to smaller regions such as regions or neighbourhoods.

References

Adrian, J. & Daniel, R. (1976). Impact of Socioeconomic Factors on Consumption of Selected Food Nutrients in the United States. American Journal of Agricultural Economics. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/ajae/article/58/1/31/168600

Amaç Herdağdelen, Yaneer Bar-Yam (2011). Global Grain Consumption Map. Retrieved from: http://necsi.edu/research/economics/grainconsumption.html

Asian Recipe (n.d.). Japanese Dining History. asian-recipe.com. Retrieved from: https://www.asian-recipe.com/japan/japanese-dining-history.html

Corleone, J. (2017) The Typical American Diet. Livestrong.com. Retrieved from: https://www.livestrong.com/article/197885-the-typical-american-diet/

GLANZ, K. BASIL, M. MAIBACH, E. GOLDBERG, J. & SNYDER, D. (1998). Why Americans Eat What They Do. Elsevier Inc. Retrieved from: https://jandonline.org/article/S0002-8223(98)00260-0/fulltext What is the name of the journal this article is published in?

Graham, R., Stolte, O., Hodgetts, D., and Chamberlain, K. (2016). Nutritionism and the construction of ‘poor choices’ in families facing food insecurity. Journal of Health Psychology [September 28 2016, epub ahead of print], 1–9.

Pearce, J. Hiscock, R. Blakely, T. & Witten, K. (2008). The contextual effects of neighbourhood access to supermarkets and convenience stores on individual fruit and vegetable consumption. GeoHealth Laboratory, Department of Geography, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. Retrieved from http://jech.bmj.com/content/62/3/198.short

Ping, J. (2013). What are the Cheapest Vegetables Per Pound?. Retrieved from: http://www.mymoneyblog.com/cheapest-vegetables.html

Senauer, B. & Gemma, M. (1994). Why Is the Obesity Rate So Low in Japan and High in the U.S.? Some Possible Economic Explanations. Department of Applied Economics 1994 Buford Ave. Retrieved from: https://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/14321/1/tr06-02s.pdf

Tomoko Otake. (2017). Continuing streak, Japan leads world in life expectancy, WHO report says. TheJapanTimes News. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/05/17/national/science-health/continuing-streak-japan-leads-world-life-expectancy-report-says/#.WxZYeUiFOUk

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