Murilo Dorion • 2021 Issue
You walk into your kitchen after a Zoom class. You ran out of leftovers yesterday, so you have 45 minutes to cook and eat before your next meeting. Family issues and term papers left you with no time to go to the grocery store, so all you have is pasta, a can of tuna, and tomato sauce. You boil some water, cook the pasta, stir everything together and consume everything while watching a relaxing video on YouTube. Surely you would prefer to be having a family-style 3-course meal with those you love, but this will have to do. It’s not the first time you ate such a simple lunch this month. But you have a lot of snacks for later, so it is probably fine.
It is not just you. In fact, the abandonment of traditional meals is a global trend. Meal-like structures are a cross-cultural phenomenon, with some scholars even claiming that they are a universal feature of human societies . However, the exchange of culinary traditions, the expansion of global food corporations, and a “global” style of development have reduced the amount of time people can dedicate to eating, while giving them more options to snack.
...with these novel pressures, we are witnessing a slow rejection of the constructive interaction between cultural traditions and biological health, which is being replaced by a snacking regime subordinated to the logic of the cycle of production rather than biological needs and benefits.
This movement away from structured eating has important implications. The cultural enforcement of meal timing and frequency is an essential factor to regulate the circadian rhythm, and thus its absence makes disorganized eating more likely. This, in turn, increases the risk for eating disorders and obesity  . Meals are also important bonding moments, and eating with family is associated with better mental health and building of social capital . Thus, with these novel pressures, we are witnessing a slow rejection of the constructive interaction between cultural traditions and biological health, which is being replaced by a snacking regime subordinated to the logic of the cycle of production rather than biological needs and benefits.
To resist those pressures, many governments around the world have taken the erroneous path of emphasizing healthy eating. This is part of a pattern of the individualization of collective problems, and pushing solutions focused on individual choice is not only disingenuous but also ineffective. In practice, these measures amount to little more than educational campaigns, and they ignore the physical and economic impossibility of preserving a meal tradition when many simply do not have the resources to choose. There is evidence that individual interventions help people to cope with systemic pressures and increase healthy practices, but a 2014 review found that the real effect in low socioeconomic status populations is significantly smaller. In fact, in this subgroup, the effect of interventions was as small as “eating just under half a portion of fruit and vegetables more each day” . Qualitative studies have supported the intuitive fact that, for those with low income, money is a problem and ‘life gets in the way’ of obesity prevention . It is therefore apparent that individualistic solutions only contain the potential to increase the health gap without significantly improving the well-being of those who need it the most. In fact, they might only improve the lives of the rich.
The failure of this type of policy is clearly illustrated in the case of Brazil. In 2014, the country’s federal government released the Alimentary Guide for the Brazilian Population, which aimed to inform the general public about eating healthy. This document was praised internationally for its clear language and easily understandable parameters to communicate information and recommendations. It was the ideal dietary guide, focusing on nutrient intake, broad food groups, and simple action items such as reducing fast-food intake and avoiding items that are heavily advertised, since they are more likely to be hyper-industrialized and therefore unhealthy . And yet, in spite of this document, obesity rates continue to climb in the country .
...individualistic solutions only contain the potential to increase the health gap without significantly improving the well-being of those who need it the most. In fact, they might only improve the lives of the rich.
The case of Brazil clearly illustrates the challenges of healthy development. Economic growth in the country and its increasing insertion into the globalized economy has created a contradictory situation where the unequal calorie distribution among the population created both a malnutrition and obesity problem during the 21st century . Fortunately, decades of political struggle allowed Brazil to no longer meet the threshold for the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organization World Hunger Map, but the growing rates of obesity are still a threat, even in a country where healthy foods are cheaper than unhealthy ones . These trends cannot be counteracted by a few pages of information; rather, the deeper causes must be evaluated and understood so that future solutions do not consist of the misguided “informative” platitudes of the past.
Thus, taking Brazil as a case study, we will go beyond the individual and understand the context that is giving rise to the obesity pandemic. Rather than try to extract a global narrative from this country, we will focus on the local history and socioeconomic conjecture that shapes Brazil’s relationship with the globalized economy. In fact, by understanding the historical formation of the food landscape in Brazil, we will show that there is no global progression to so-called development, and thus local approaches are crucial. Then, we will analyze the current conjecture of economic “modernity” and globalization that influences - and sometimes determines - dietary choices, its contingencies, and ways to move forward.
In post-colonial countries, not all (wo)men are created equal. Some, argues sociologist Robert Merton, might have power and influence over a region, but have their interests and connections elsewhere, effectively making them foreign to the land they inhabit . Such elites, which he classifies as cosmopolitan, led most European-derived systems implemented in American colonies, and Brazil was no exception. Lands were managed not to the benefit of the local community, but rather to enrich cosmopolitans and other Portuguese aristocrats. The economic makeup of Brazil was subjected to such a logic from the early captaincy system, where the Portuguese crown would license 250km of land for nobles to exploit, to the later mercantilist system, where the colony could only trade with Portugal and local manufacturing was outlawed.
Despite draining the land and limiting food production, monoculture became the foundation of the colony’s economy.
The proto-globalization that took place under colonialism allowed monoculture to emerge as the optimal way to exploit those lands. This system consisted of elite families using their vast farms to grow a single product, often sugar cane or tobacco, with the goal of exporting to Portugal. In this context, cultivation of non-exportable crops was seen as secondary, and cattle that were not used for traction or transport were regarded as a waste of resources and land . Aside from crowding out other crops, monocultures are known to degrade the soil, increase erosion, and ease the loss of nutrients by rain . Despite draining the land and limiting food production, monoculture became the foundation of the colony’s economy.
From its inception, this monoculture foundation created an economic structure that was pathogenic. The impacts of this arrangement, however, were not equally felt among the Brazilian society. Poor Whites and mixed-race people depended on the local market, which was heavily disrupted by the flour shortages of the 17th  and 18th  centuries. Even when food was available for purchase, deprivation diseases were still common, since the available options were not nutritious and made a balanced diet difficult to obtain. This situation caused a high prevalence of vitamin B1 deficiency, low-level scurvy, and anemia during that time . Wealthy enslavers were able to import more nutritious food from Portugal, but the lack of preservative technology like refrigeration meant that they, too, often suffered digestive tract diseases . Since animal protein was rare, and vegetable protein sources were not plentiful enough, the abundant and carbohydrate-dependent diet of the wealthy increased the incidence of diabetes .
However, no group was more subjected to cosmopolitan interests than enslaved Black people. Enslavers had almost absolute control over their lives, and their diet was no exception. Food was provided to meet calorie needs and ensure that the enslaved were kept productive, but there was no concern with access to nutritious food or any other physiological need . In practice, the enslaved were starved in a way that ensured plantations were kept productive.
Political independence in 1822 and the abolition of slavery in 1888 did not remedy the consequences of the subordination of people and land to cosmopolitan interests. The Northeast, which had previously been the center of slavery-based sugar cane production, continues to struggle with the specter of soil degradation, despite its naturally-occurring land being especially fertile. To this day, this region is one of the most vulnerable to food insecurity, and most of the deprivation diseases of the colonial era persisted at least until the 1930s .
Today, Brazil does not struggle only with deprivation, but also an abundance of unhealthy choices. With an already overburdened healthcare system, the health burden introduced by an increase in diet-associated illnesses  can jeopardize the long-term stability of public healthcare in the country and increase health disparities. Given the systemic nature of this problem, it is easy to take a defeatist stance and accept that unhealthy eating and snacking are a natural consequence of economic development and the antithesis of the malnutrition that the country endured before. After all, similar obesity trends exist across developing and developed countries alike.
There is a trace of truth in that statement. But to evaluate its content, we must consider the context in which “development” emerged. There was nothing deterministic or unavoidable about monoculture, slavery, or mercantilism in the Americas. To abolish or reform such pathogenic exploitation systems, it was necessary to question the choices that led Brazilian society to such an organization. Thus, to address the current model of development and find a cure for pathogenic dietary practices, we must consider the decisions that are being made today.
Indeed, current decision making still subordinates local economies to the pressures of global economic forces. Geographer Milton Santos argues that, in underdeveloped countries, the 20th century economy is organized in an upper circle that is integrated with the global capital, and a lower circle that serves and is served by local populations. In concrete terms, export-based agribusiness still concentrates most land for the production of soy and meat, while small properties are the main producers of staple food items such as beans and mandioca . Thus, the profit incentives of the upper circle are untethered from the local population, since both their consumers and debt are either located in other countries or somehow linked to international trade . When capital is concentrated in groups that have no material interest in creating a local consumer market, the only relation with the workers is that of value extraction.
Obesity is no more a disease of modernity  than B12 deficiency in colonial Brazil was a disease of Enlightenment. They are both diseases of the economy, the consequence of a dysfunctional system that was conceived for the enrichment of the few rather than the well-being of the many.
In the search for efficiency in such a dynamic, time to eat well becomes wasteful. French anthropologist Claude Fisher argues that the increasing power that labor has in shaping our daily routine has disrupted traditional group meals to a point where, in its place, we have become atomized snackers that eat whenever our labor allows . Indeed, the average resident from São Paulo spends 2h43m commuting every day , since the capital that funds workplaces is concentrated far from middle and lower-income residential areas. This makes it impossible for the non-wealthy to dine at home, and forces some to use their commute as a moment to snack.
With traditions weakened by the pressure of labor, a United States-centric hegemonic culture found fertile ground to take root. There are multiple local staples around Brazil that would pair well with snacking culture, but, instead of accessing those traditions, individuals are bombarded with McDonalds and Burger King ads, and US-produced media shows successful characters eating sandwiches on their way to work. Local stores do not have the organizational or cultural means to compete with those global brands or trends, and thus globalization acts to homogenize culture. This is what Milton Santos calls the “spoiler effect”[18,19]: capital acting to generate desire for goods and services that are not only incompatible with the technical reality of a country, but are also foreign to a country’s cultural context. The incentive to reduce free time is significant, the cultural pressure is tremendous and, thus, meal-eaters become snackers.
It is therefore incorrect to claim that the global increase in obesity rates and diet-associated illnesses is a consequence of modernization. This claim assumes that present conditions are a natural consequence of progress, the result of a trudge towards a single possible mode of modernity. Although the current conjecture is tied to globalization, it does not have to be “global,” except in the sense that it is caused by a global subjection to a dominant culture and pathogenic economic system. Obesity is no more a disease of modernity  than B12 deficiency in colonial Brazil was a disease of Enlightenment. They are both diseases of the economy, the consequence of a dysfunctional system that was conceived for the enrichment of the few rather than the well-being of the many.
A cure, therefore, must be political. Governmental action is crucial in this context. The growth-based model of market systems, if left unquestioned, necessitates an increase in consumption, creating incentives for the promotion of the current obesity pandemic . This system must therefore be regarded as a distal driver of nutritional practices and disease, and taming its forces as an integral part of long-term public health planning.
Regulation is a crucial avenue to mitigate the side-effects of this system. With such a dizzying array of sometimes unfamiliar options, it is unreasonable to expect the average consumer to fully understand the implication of their dietary choices. Thus, it becomes necessary to limit the supply of unhealthy alternatives and provide informative packaging that steers consumers to the healthiest choices. In fact, access to nutritional information is an important factor to explain why the wealthy, in spite of their increased capacity to increase their calorie intake, are still less likely to be affected by obesity [10,11].
Ultimately, the shape of this struggle is varied, but the common thread is an understanding that the person is the fundamental unit of any social organization, and society should be shaped around their biological needs.
However, alleviating symptoms does not cure the underlying condition. The globalization of capital is what undermines meals, atomizes consumers, and undermines public health. Fortunately, the apparently overpowering forces of globalized capital are not omnipotent. Milton Santos argues that globalization is always a bottom-up phenomenon – that is, even though macrostructures are important and powerful, they only have an effect on the individual through interactions with their reality, values, and living spaces. Globalization and the individual meet at what Santos calls the place, which is the space where the banal life of the individual meets the globalizing forces of the market  – the town square with a Coca Cola sign, the local shop fending off a global hotel chain, or the workplace organized by a United States MBA graduate.
Although the individual cannot disrupt the global system, it can resist in the place and ensure that the technical development that globalization brings is used for their interests. The action that emerges from a place is defined by the relationships of those who inhabit it, and thus there are no prescriptive forms to be applied here. Organizing co-ops to introduce technology into family-owned farms, for example, has shown to be an effective tactic in Brazil, and has allowed the productivity of such farms to sometimes rival major agribusinesses. Similarly, demands from the labor movement for a reduction in the work week ensure that increases in productivity do not only serve the business, but also allow laborers to regain their life hours and meals. Ultimately, the shape of this struggle is varied, but the common thread is an understanding that the person is the fundamental unit of any social organization, and society should be shaped around their biological needs.
If individual interventions are ineffective, and if changes in nutrition-related disorders have followed structural changes in the Brazilian and global economy, we must consider structural factors as fundamental causes of disease. However, the problem is not “modernity”. Technological modernization has given us the tools to overcome human challenges that were thought to be insurmountable. But the best tools are still useless without a competent wielder, and the current global order has misused those means to extract productivity and profit at the expense of health. We must begin the work of regaining control over those tools. This is a public health issue.
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