In any culture, eating customs and norms are essential part of daily life and constitute major parts of who we are. In many ways, the idea that ‘we are what we eat’ holds true.
In rapidly developing societies, changes that were seemingly unrelated to diet caused people to overlook hazardous alterations in food habits.
For example, I noticed a strange health phenomenon in the Republic of Kiribati, where I worked from 2006 to 2008. Many people in Kiribati suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, and in fact many elderly there have the deficiency to such a degree that they have lost eye sight. A major cause of the high incidence of the disease there is that people do not like to eat vegetables that contain the Vitamin, such as leafy greens and pumpkins. The government takes the issue seriously, and provides Vitamin A shots to all its young citizens in schools to try and prevent the problem.
Surprisingly, approximately a hundred years ago a doctor that visited nearly every Pacific island to conduct a health survey claimed that the islands of Kiribati were among the healthiest he’d seen, with no prevalent disease, save for the occasional case of Anemia.
I later came to know that cooking methods had radically changed over the past 1-2 generations in Kiribati. In the past, Kiribati people would cook using underground ovens. In these ovens, food would be wrapped in green leaves, and the Vitamin A from these leaves would enter the food as it cooked. Today, Kiribati folk mainly cook with pots and pans, and the dark green leaves are no longer part of the cooking equation.
Let’s take Bhutan as another example. If we consider recent Bhutanese history, it isn’t surprising that the country’s citizens consume large quantities of rice. Working on a farm requires huge amounts of energy. However, while many Bhutanese now work in urban areas, and sit behind a desk, the diet has remained largely the same in many households. It’s true that this trend shows a certain cultural robustness, but could these eating habits, coupled with a different lifestyle, be to blame for increased incidence of diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure?
While the focus of this article centers on some surprising correlations between socio-economic development and dietary concerns, it raises a broader question: what other consequences might we inadvertently be overlooking in the rush to adopt new trends and lifestyles?
By Matt G Robinson,
Lecturer, Institute of Language and Culture Studies, Taktse, Trongsa