Food and culture are two issues that have interested scholars for years. Studies and research in anthropology reveal an intricate link between the culture of a people and the food they consume. These links date back to ancient practices and lifestyles such as hunting, gathering, cultivating, and animal rearing that affect the food that a people eat in the modern world along with their perception of various substances. In his book, Food, Genes and Culture: Eating Right for Your Origins, Gary Nabhan examines this issue through the lives of Native Americans and American Indians. His work reveals that the pre-colonial lifestyles of the Indians’ resulted in genetic encoding that affects their susceptibility to certain diet related conditions as well as their ability to consume various foods. Similarly, Deborah Lupton, in Food, the Body, and the Self, examines how cultures affect a people’s food preferences by affecting their tastes and determining taboos that concern foodstuffs and eating practices. The issues that Lupton and Nabhan explain bear significance in the modern world, as global health authorities attempt to deal with serious concerns revolving around the over-consumption of various substances. In Evolution’s Sweet Tooth, Lieberman delves into the way that humans evolved over millennia to develop a taste for sugary foods, substances that were vital to their survival. Accordingly, Lieberman’s article is a relevant case study through which Lupton’s and Nabhan’s arguments can be examined. Examining Lieberman’s piece through the arguments and theories of Nabhan and Lupton shows that the two authors were right to link various food issues such as preference and the ability to digest certain items to culture and genetic encoding.

The Impact of Human Cultural Practices on Food and Dietary Preferences

In Evolution’s Sweet Tooth, Lieberman establishes a link to modern food preferences with the lifestyles of human ancestors in previous eras. Recent years have seen global health authorities raise the alarm over the steady increase in cases of diabetes and obesity. Some government authorities have taken the measure of banning some servings of soft drinks, an issue that has evoked strong responses from different quarters. In light of these issues, Lieberman attempts to explain why human beings tend to crave sugar and consume it in such large amounts. He specifically states, “humans evolved to crave sugar, store it, and then use it”. Ancient humans developed this preference because they needed to have large fast reserves in their bodies for times when food was scarce. A key issue that Lieberman raises is that the hunter-gatherer lifestyles of ancient humans resulted in a certain preference for sugary foods that humans retain to this day. The idea of past human lifestyles determining modern dietary preferences is one that resonates with Nabhan’s main theory in Food, Genes, and Culture. In his book, Nabhan explains that Native Americans and other Indian communities from the Americas are particularly susceptible to certain diseases due to their past lifestyles. Nabhan specifically uses an argument similar to Lieberman’s to explain why certain ethnic groups are unable to digest milk. He explains that lactose tolerance is traceable to the “distribution of ancient herding peoples in Europe, Asia Minor, and Northern Africa” (Nabhan 18). The fact that these communities reared animals meant that they had more exposure to milk and remained lactase active after being weaned and into their adulthood. In a manner similar to Nabhan, Lupton also links past lifestyles to modern food preferences. However, Lupton’s arguments do not allude to a biological preference but a cultural one that relates to taste. Lupton explains that food preferences within human beings normally pass through families, as parents transmit them to their children (97). The practice of transmitting these preferences means that food tastes normally have cultural imprints within them and relate to the past lifestyles of a people. Over time, these tastes may lead to biological preferences such as those that Nabhan and Lieberman highlighted. Accordingly, the lifestyles of a people play a significant role in determining their ability to consume certain foods along with their eating preferences.

In addition to a link between human food preferences and lifestyles, studies have also successfully connected these tastes to genetic encoding. The lifestyles and cultures of ancient humans played a significant role in determining modern dietary practices and food consumption abilities. Lieberman explains this by indicating how the difficult lives of human ancestors in the Stone Age made them develop a craving for sugar. While these cravings may seem to allude to rudimentary and basic preferences, it is important to note that they also allude to genetic changes in the human DNA. Nabhan successfully highlights this issue by explaining how some communities in the world became lactose tolerant, as others remained intolerant. According to Nabhan, most people in the world are naturally lactose intolerant (18). The existence of this condition may explain the process of weaning children as they continue to mature. However, genetic encoding and a mutation in the human DNA accounts for changes to being lactose tolerant within some communities. By becoming lactose tolerant, the communities gained an advantage by being able to use milk, an abundant resource to them, as a source of food and nutrition. The change occurred in communities that reared animals. Contrastingly, some Native American communities did not have this access to milk and would therefore not benefit to any change in their DNA (Nabhan 18). Accordingly, they remain lactose intolerant thousands of years after the change occurred in other ethnic groups. Nabhan’s explanation of why some communities remain lactose intolerant in the modern age fits in with Lieberman’s claims concerning natural preferences for sugar within human beings. It is likely that this craving advanced from a rudimentary craving to become a genetically encoded attribute within humans in the modern age.

Based on the links that scholars have established between food preferences, cultures and genes there is a need to change dietary practices as human lifestyles change. Lieberman’s article sheds some light on why the tastes of food, and not nutritional value, dictate the dietary practices of modern human beings. The lifestyles and practices of human ancestors during the Stone Age had a significant impact on the dietary preferences of their descendants in the modern world. While Lieberman’s article links modern cravings with past lifestyles, Nabhan and Lupton go further in their analysis. Nabhan’s work indicates that modern preferences share a link with genetic encoding that resulted from cultural practices and lifestyles of the past. Conversely, Lupton indicates that the tastes that cultures of humans from ancient times dictate the tastes that people have in the modern world. These links have significant ramifications to the health concerns that Lieberman highlights in his article. Firstly, the genetic encoding that Nabhan identifies in his book explains why human beings continue to indulge in foods that cause serious health conditions. The cultural impact on taste that Lupton identifies also helps explain why some communities are more susceptible to dietary conditions than others are. Based on these explanations, global health authorities should understand that the solution to health concerns such as diabetes and heart disease go beyond policy matters to involve cultural issues. It is also important for the authorities to ensure that the medical solutions accounts for the genetic preference that is encoded within the human DNA.

Failings in Lupton’s and Nabhan’s Arguments

One key failing in Nabhan’s and Lupton’s arguments is the failure by both authors to account for changes significant changes in human cultures and lifestyles since the Industrial Revolution. In their works, Nabhan and Lupton explain that past lifestyles and cultural practices have a significant influence on modern dietary preferences and the ability that people have when it comes to processing certain food substances. Their arguments explain why people from certain cultures have similar tastes as well as the susceptibility that some communities have to conditions linked to specific foods. However, the authors fail to account for the fact that the human diet has changed significantly since the Industrial Revolution. Changes caused by the Industrial Revolution started as early as three hundred years ago for some humans and changed the food that they eat. For some communities such as the Native Americans, the influx of Europeans in the Americas means that their food choices have been changing over the past two centuries. However, people in these communities remain susceptible to certain dietary conditions. Accordingly, the genetic encoding that Nabhan explained and the cultural preferences that Lupton highlights should have begun changing within the two hundred year period.


In their books, Nabhan and Lupton help explain how cultural preferences, ancient lifestyles, and genetic encoding affect modern human preferences for food. Their arguments help explain some issues, such as the increased susceptibility of some communities to lifestyle conditions. When examined within the context of Lieberman’s article, Nabhan’s and Lupton’s arguments indicate that modern lifestyle diseases share links with past practices, thus making them significant harder to cure. However, while Nabhan and Lupton explained how these past practices affect modern preferences and vulnerabilities, they failed to identify the reasons why some communities have failed to adapt to modern dietary changes, centuries after they began to take place. This knowledge gap begs the question, “Why do some communities find it difficult to adapt to dietary changes even after they have been occurring over prolonged periods?” This question covers issues from various fields such as anthropology, biology, and nutrition, thus necessitating extensive research. Answering this question will require the conduction of research in this field using scholarly works such as textbooks and academic journals. Most of this research will refer to previous studies concerning the same issue. The research is also likely to delve into topics concerning genetic health conditions, cultural practices and the concept of DNA.


Works Cited

Lupton, Deborah. Food, the Body and the Self. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 1996. Print.

Nabhan, Gary Paul. Food, Genes and Culture: Eating Right for your Origins. Washington: Island Press, 2013. Print.

Lieberman, Daniel E. Evolution’s Sweet Tooth. The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 5 June 2012. Web. 04 Nov. 2014.

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