Upper Station Street,  Hong Kong. Photo courtesy Pamoa and wikicommons

Using Critical Biocultural Approaches and the Life Course Perspective to Find Solutions

Last spring there was an article in the Tampa Bay Times (2013) about Massachusetts students being denied lunch because their prepaid meal accounts were short of funds. To make matters worse, some of these students were forced to dump their meals in the garbage when the cashier found out they could not pay. Fast forward to the current debacle in Congress over the Farm Bill and the disagreement between the two chambers regarding cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP), which provides Food Stamps to 47 million Americans. The Republican-led House is proposing a particularly egregious cut of $39 billion to SNAP over the next decade while the Democratic-controlled Senate calls for a $4 billion cut. Because of the intransigence, the increase in SNAP allocations under President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill did not go into effect, and now millions of food stamp recipients are experiencing cuts to their benefits. It is estimated, for example, that four million Californians will face food stamp reductions that are equivalent to the loss of about 21 meals per month (Brown 2013). Meanwhile, in New York and Texas, millions of children, the elderly, and those with disabilities are also being affected by the lack of action (Stangling 2013).

The drama of the do-nothing Congress, the fool-hearty policy of a local school district (and likely others) over pre-paid lunches, and the hesitancy of some Governors, notably John Kasich of Ohio, to request a waiver that would stop SNAP benefits from being cut (The Columbus Dispatch 2013) are all occurring at a time when 14.5% of US households (49 million people, including over 16 million children) are food insecure (Coleman-Jensen and Nord 2013). These Americans have limited access to adequate food because of a lack of economic resources, and their health is threatened as a result.

These frightening numbers are underscored by the now concrete evidence showing the consequences of early environment adversity (eg, under- and over-nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies) on long-term health, cognitive development, academic performance, and work productivity (eg, Almond and Currie 2011; Bateson et al, 2004). The once held idea that the fetus was the “perfect parasite” which was not subject to outside environmental perturbations has been exploded and it is now clear that early environmental exposures (social, biological, physical and behavioral) can trigger phenotypic changes throughout the life course and in response to different life experiences including food insecurity.

The aim of this essay is to highlight the role that anthropologists have in addressing the impact of food insecurity in early human development and throughout the life span, using a critical biocultural perspective. While this knowledge is critically important, it also points to the relevance of anthropological approaches during a time when the discipline is being increasingly scrutinized by legislators (Florida Governor Rick Scott, a case in point). Not only do anthropologists have a responsibility to contribute their insights to promulgation of public policy, but they also have a vested interest in articulating the power of the discipline to finding solutions to pressing social problems.

Critical Biocultural Perspective in Nutritional Anthropology

Upper Station Street,  Hong Kong. Photo courtesy Pamoa and wikicommons

Upper Station Street, Hong Kong. Photo courtesy Pamoa and wikicommons

As a subfield, nutritional anthropology has focused on the “interrelationships between biological and social forces [that shape] human food use and the nutritional status of individuals and populations” (Pelto et al, 2012: 2). As a result, theoretical models have been offered to explain how distal and proximal environmental factors interact to influence food use and nutritional health, which are ultimately biocultural processes. For example, the most recent iteration of the ecological model of food and nutrition, which was first presented by Jerome and colleagues in 1980, now shows how global forces such as global capitalism and rural-to-urban migration synergistically affect the physical environment (e.g., climate change), social environment (eg, local food system), social organization (eg, food sharing), “culture” (eg, indigenous food knowledge), technology (eg, agricultural practices), diet (individual food consumption patterns), and nutritional needs and status for biological maintenance, growth, immune function, reproduction, etc. (See Pelto et al, 2012 for a more detailed discussion).

More recently, and borrowing from medical anthropology, critical theory has been superimposed on the biocultural perspective to examine the nuanced effects of gender, social class, and race and ethnicity on food use and nutritional health. This incorporates the understanding that nutritional health becomes transformed socially (Levins and Lewontin 1998; Goodman and Leatherman 1998; Leatherman and Goodman 2005) through political economic processes, and that social and economic inequalities are embodied in human biology as a result of epigenetic processes acting on biological plasticity. This theoretical perspective then is useful when looking at the effects of food insecurity during early development and throughout the life span.

The Life Course Perspective and Life History Theory in Anthropology

The life course perspective, posits that nutrition, from pre-conception to adulthood, is determined by the interaction of social, behavioral, physical, and biological factors (Herman et al, 2013). As a result, health during the entire lifespan and across generations reflects a complex set of environmental factors that shape food use and nutritional status through time and space. Although this perspective has recently gained traction in other disciplines such as public health nutrition, it is eerily similar to the holism found in anthropology and more specifically to the critical biocultural perspective in nutritional anthropology and human life history theory in biological anthropology.

Life history theory is drawn from evolutionary theory and from the idea that resources such as nutrients are finite and must be allocated through a series of trade-offs for growth, maintenance, reproduction, rearing offspring, and survival (Crews and Bogin 2010). Because nutrient requirements vary through the life history of an organism, they are age and context specific (Blackwell et al, 2010). Further, when examining the life histories of humans, one must necessarily take into account access and availability of foods that contain vital nutrients, the symbolic meaning of particular foods, decision-making regarding the use of food, and agency or control over food. Here then, the social takes over and transforms health through nutrient allocation trade-offs during the life-span and across generations. Depending on the success of these trade-offs, the health outcomes can be positive or negative. Often, the allocation of nutrients is studied at particular life history stages including fetal, childhood, adolescence, and adult during pregnancy, lactation, and other child rearing periods (Anderson 2010).

Using Pelto and colleagues’ (2012) biocultural flow chart that links the social forces that shape human food use with nutritional status and biological functioning, Figure 1 shows how life history theory can be incorporated into the biocultural perspective to examine resource allocation trade-offs through the life span. When combined with the critical biocultural perspective, which takes into account social inequalities, this theoretical framework offers a powerful heuristic device for examining how early exposure to food insecurity can have lasting effects.


Figure 1. A conceptual model for examining human food use, nutritional status, and biological functioning through the life span. Image courtesy David Himmelgreen

Figure 1. A conceptual model for examining human food use, nutritional status, and biological functioning through the life span. Image courtesy David Himmelgreen


Applying the Critical Biocultural Perspective to Food Insecurity in Early Human Development

Food insecurity exists when people do not have access to safe, sufficient, and nutritious food at all times to maintain a healthy and active life (WHO 2013). Food insecurity can lead to under-nutrition and micro-nutrient deficiencies which are embodied as growth stunting, wasting, and cognitive impairment among other problems. Interestingly, however, the food insecurity-obesity paradox has also been documented, especially in middle- and upper-income countries such as the U.S. In this case, the primary issue has more to do with the political and economic access to a balanced diet rather than the lack of food (as exemplified by the existence of food deserts in many US inner-city settings). Further, there is emerging research that uses the life course perspective to examine the consequences of food insecurity on physical and mental health at different points along the life span. For example, Schlűssel and colleagues recently examined the association between household food insecurity and excess body weight among adult women, female adolescents, and children under-five years of age in Brazil (2013). The findings suggest that differences in weight gain/obesity depend on the intensity of food insecurity and the timing of the insult along the life course. Additionally, the authors point to cultural practices and behaviors related to body image and ideal body types. However, the mechanisms for how these practices and behaviors interact at different life stages to shape nutritional status are not discussed. Their discussion of social class and race (using mother’s skin color) is also problematic. Despite these limitations, studies like this one are important first steps in more fully understanding the role of food insecurity in the early environment and the health consequences later on.

In bringing the critical biocultural perspective and life history theory to the table, anthropology offers a reified and sufficiently sophisticated framework for examining the long-terms consequences of early life adversity (Himmelgreen 2013). Since health outcomes are shaped by the interaction among biological, physical, social, and behavioral environmental factors, something that anthropologists have been studying for decades, the time is ripe for more aggressively asserting ourselves into the conversation, and in doing so, we will kill two birds with one stone (apologies to bird lovers). First, our contributions will advance knowledge and generate ideas for solutions. Second, we can speak to a larger audience about the relevance of anthropology in addressing complex social problems that are inherently biocultural in nature. Considering the current crisis and budget woes in education and research, this should be at the top of our to-do list.

David Himmelgreen is a professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida. He has conducted extensive research on hunger and food insecurity in the US, Costa Rica, and Lesotho. He recently completed an NSF supported longitudinal study on economic changes, food insecurity, and nutritional health in rural Costa Rica and is currently carrying out another NSF project on food-related decision making in food secure and food insecure households in Florida.

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One Comment

  1. Bill Kinsey
    Posted December 21, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Great essay…great series of essays! But where do we find the full citations?

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