What should we eat? That’s a question with implications for health, pleasure, ethics and politics. As political scientist Tripp Rebrovick writes, views of these issues in European and white American society have shifted over time, from a framework based on bodily humors to one centering on nutrition and then to a holistic, ecological point of view.
For centuries, the reigning dietary framework for many Europeans was based on the four humors, which physicians believed ruled the human body: blood, yellow bile or choler, black bile, and phlegm. The humors defined individuals’ personalities and corresponded to the seasons of the year, the stages of a human life, and the qualities hot, cold, dry, and wet. This meant that the correct food to eat depended on individual constitutions and their circumstances.
“A sanguine person, in whom blood predominates, is hot and moist by nature and should therefore favor hot and moist foods, especially in autumn, in adulthood, or in a cold, dry environment,” Rebrovick writes.
Balancing the humors correctly was a matter of both health and morality, while gluttony could cause illness and vice. This view of eating emerged in ancient Greece and remained powerful into the early modern era.
Things changed in the nineteenth century, as new ideas about science took hold. Influential chemist Justus von Liebig explained food in terms of its component parts, which can be either incorporated into the body or burned for energy. Later, the calorie allowed scientists to quantify the value of food in terms of human energy. The complex view of dietary rules based on individuals’ characteristics and circumstances faded.
“For Liebig, the human body is universally the same, rather than radically individualized,” Rebrovick writes. “And Liebig justifies this claim by arguing that all human bodies—indeed, all bodies—are composed of the same chemicals.”
“Nutritionism” elevated the power of experts and supported state projects to advance public health. Counting calories and grams of protein allowed administrators to organize food supplies for prisons and armies, and eventually label food with nutritional information.
Around the 1960s, Europeans’ and Americans’ views of food began to shift again. A variety of movements—organic, slow food, buy local, and so on—promoted versions of what Rebrovick calls an eco-dietetic discourse. Here, healthy food is also ecologically virtuous and tasty. As Alice Waters, an icon of the organic, local food movement writes, “environmentalism can be something that actually affects you in the most intimate—and literally visceral—way. It can be something that actually gets inside you and gets digested.”
Rebrovick writes that eco-dietetics emerged largely as a critique of the nutritionist model, rejecting industrial-style food systems and the treatment of foods as interchangeable bundles of chemical components. But it also differs sharply from a humors-based view of food, presenting eating as a question of values that extends outside the individual to the ecological community in which they live.