I’ve spent the last few years researching and writing a book about the importance of growing up within a culture of food. When the society you live within collectively creates rituals and rules about consuming food, people tend to be healthier and tend to enjoy their food. Look at Italy, where I’ve been living for the past ten years, where generations of families have created delicious recipes, where there are rules about eating, where snacking is minimal.
Or, perhaps I should say was because all of this is changing rather rapidly as children in Italy – in countries all over the world, really – are eating more like American children. They’re eating sugar-loaded breakfast cereals in the morning and packaged cakes at snack time. They’re eating fast food hamburgers and hot dogs with french fries, frozen pasta and pizzas, and they’re washing it all down with soft drinks and sweetened juice. The obesity rate among children in Italy has reached one in three – just like American children.
Rather than look to their own traditions for answers, Italians are paying more attention to nutrition science and seeking out “healthy” products, as North Americans have been doing, hoping to tweak things here and there to find the balance. My bet is that this strategy will work about as well as it has for Canadians, Americans and the British – all of us with climbing obesity rates and food anxiety. Our prodigious and intricate knowledge of food health, as the food activist and writer Michael Pollan has written about so thoroughly, has left us worse off.
It breaks my heart to see the collective wisdom of generations – a system of knowledge that stretches far back into the past well beyond the people any of us can actually remember, a system that has incorporated food knowledge, health knowledge and pleasure – shoved aside in favour of the latest research from the food scientists and the latest scientifically formulated food products from the food industry.
In this space, I intend to continue to write about the importance of culture to health. I’ll continue to discuss the great things that food cultures have to offer, particularly to children, and also look at where, I think, they’re going wrong. I’ll talk about my own life and the challenges I face raising a young child here in Italy, and I’ll talk about the people I encounter along the way.
I’ll update often and I’ll include pictures. I hope readers will use the comments section to carry on the discussion. Check back tomorrow and we can talk about lunch …