The 84th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2015)

Counting Calories, Counting Culture: Considerations for Diversity and Food-Based Dietary Guidelines


Department of Anthropology, The Ohio State University

March 27, 2015 3:15, Grand Ballroom A/B Add to calendar

The Department of Health and Human Services publishes an updated set of dietary guidelines geared toward the American public every five years. Despite written recommendations unique to “specified populations,” comparably little seems to account for our nation’s multicultural composition. Such discrepancies become especially manifested in pictorial representations of food-based dietary guidelines (FBDGs), which essentially distill recommendations into a uniform image whether it be a pyramid, set of steps, or most recently a plate in the American context. This paper presents an opportune moment to reflect on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans—in advance of its 2015 release—within the context of global dietary diversity and human variation. Comparing the aforementioned guidelines with those around the world allows for worldwide variation in diet to be explored, as well as expected caloric intake compared to energy expenditure of world cultures. Through a literature review and survey of 24 contemporary pictorial representations of FBDGs, and a quantitative analysis of caloric data of select populations, we emphasize the political economy of biological and cultural outcomes around diet (i.e., the politics tied into the representation of food choices defined biologically and culturally) and its implications for dietary guideline efficacy in both written and pictorial form. We suggest efficacy is contingent on the ability to make guidelines relevant to cultural groups and representative of intragroup diversity. Further, we stress the importance of addressing and sustainably resolving access issues and systemic inequalities both on a national and global scale.