What ‘the nutrition transition’ really means

Articles in the nutritional science journals tend to be fairly bloodless. So it was nice to receive, through a correspondent, the text of this splendid article on the nutrition transition in Africa. It’s a piece that puts the blood right back into nutrition.

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The ‘nutrition transition’ describes the shift from one diet to another, specifically from the diets historically found in lower income countries to the diet found in predominantly urban and industrial societies. In the literature, the shift from a largely healthy if occasionally scant diet to a diet loaded with fats, sugars and salt is presented as a product of the inexorable march of progress. It just happens.

But that doesn’t quite cover it. The way that Verena Raschke and Bobby Cheema tell it in their article in Public Health Nutrition is a lot more accurate. They observe that the shift away from nutritious food to less nutritious food didn’t happen in a vacuum: it was a product of colonialism.

If you accept this, and it’s hard not to, then one is forced to identify the forces through which colonialism worked – everything from enforcement of a specific national economic policy to ‘education’ to ecological destruction to advertising. This suite of tools didn’t change dramatically after the end of colonialism. With few exceptions, particularly few in Africa, national economic policy in the Global South continued to be set by foreign powers who, begrudgingly, shared some of the spoils with local elites. Advertising, that singular badge of freedom, became more widespread. The tastes of the city became a beacon for national aspirations and dreams. In short, colonialism blended into neocolonialism, and history kicked the nutrition transition along.

This is something that, clearly, gets shrugged off within the nutritional science literature. Yet without a concrete and socially grounded understanding of the vectors of nutritional transition, how will we ever get to a new kind of food system that doesn’t poison us?

Do check out how, specifically, this mattered in East Africa in Verena and Bobby’s article (and I’m sure Verena, whose contact details are on the Public Health Nutrition website, will be able to send you a copy if you can’t get it for free where you are.)