Serious Reads: Fear of Food, by Harvey Levenstein

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

How many times this week have you seen an ad for a product or food that will boost your health? Have friends recommended new multivitamins or diet shakes? Did you grab a bottle of mouth-puckering pomegranate juice in an attempt to stave off aging? For centuries, we have been seeking the magic edibles that will clear our arteries, cure illnesses, and prevent an early death. Yet over time, the common wisdom has changed dramatically and often, and created a very real anxiety around what we eat. In his newest book, Harvey Levenstein explores the reasons for our food indecision in Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat.

The book takes us from the 1800s to modern day, and spans every major health craze. One of the most remarkable shifts in public health was the beginnings of milk consumption. Other authors have dedicated entire books to the transformation of milk from disease-carrying beverage only consumed by the lower class, to a live-sustaining substance pitched as the "perfect food." In the early 1920s, the public increasingly placed their trust in nutritionists and scientists. Nutritionists attributed strength and vigor to milk consumption, encouraging children and adults alike to consume up to a quart each day. By 1945, milk consumption was triple was it was in 1916.

Levenstein spends much time discussing what he calls "vitamania"—the increasingly popular belief that vitamins were necessary for a balanced diet. Scientists backed up this notion with studies and recommendations to consume supplements on a daily basis. One of the main targets of these recommendations were middle-class mothers. An increasingly child-centered culture placed pressure on women to raise their children healthy and plump, and women remained solely responsible for their husbands' health as well. These expectations encouraged the cultural belief in dietary supplements and the first super-foods.

As the public bought into food fads, food producers caught on fast. Marketing and advertising was increasingly centered around the health benefits of foods—and their ability to prevent weight gain or heart disease. Even young children were targeted in these ads.

As the 20th century went on, fat became the new enemy. Sugars, high-fat foods, carbohydrates—all of them were at some point implicated as the number one cause of weight gain. Levenstein argues that though vitamania only resulted in the "needless expenditure of billions of dolars on mainly harmless vitamins," lipophobia could have caused "considerable harm" by encouraging high-protein and low-carb diets. His ultimate take-away from decades of dietary advice is pretty simple: eat a healthy, balanced diet of unprocessed foods, and avoid excessive health advice from television and media. Fear of Food is interesting in its exploration of food fads and their sometimes negative health consequences, but falls a little short in drawing more important cultural conclusions about why we place so much importance on justifying our dietary choices.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.