People versus food

Piia Jallinoja was recently appointed professor of the sociology of health and illness at the University of Tampere.

Piia Jallinoja was recently appointed professor of the sociology of health and illness at the University of Tampere.

Food communicates the same things as yoga pants,” claims Professor Piia Jallinoja of the University of Tampere.

Jallinoja has been following the Finnish health debate for thirty years, so she is exactly the person to talk to about food and health – and the emergence of the idea of healthism.

“Healthism”, a term coined by Robert Crawford in 1980, perhaps better than any other word crystallises the present Western health trends and ideals of physical perfection. Healthism is the latest “-ism”, an ideology people seek to follow regardless of the cost.

“The word highlights the increasing significance of health in people’s lives today. Healthism involves continuous risk assessment and making healthy choices,” says Piia Jallinoja, who was recently appointed professor of the sociology of health and illness at the University of Tampere in Finland.

“The present is characterised by ambivalence. On the one hand, we are surrounded by the benefits and temptations of many different kinds of food, and food offers us many positive things. On the other, we are encountering food-related risks,” Jallinoja explains.

The background to healthism lies in the pronounced responsibility of the individual for his or her own health and well-being and for dealing with such risks. In earlier times, people were subject to hunger and infectious diseases against which they were quite powerless, whereas today, lifestyle diseases are the threat. Especially in neoliberal thinking, combating such diseases is primarily the individual’s own responsibility.

Healthism is not an inherently bad phenomenon, but if taken to extremes, it may cause anxiety. Unfortunately, people often do seem willing to take things to extremes.

“For example, reality television shows concentrating on obesity, such as ‘The Biggest Loser’, women’s magazines and celebrity culture construct cultural models where the individual heroically fights obesity and solves all their other problems to boot. Ordinary people then strive to adopt the role of the heroic slimmer,” Jallinoja explains.

Healthism concentrates on food and contains the idea that people choose for themselves what they put on their plate. However, health is just one of the many motives behind food choices. This has always been the case, but perhaps food is currently more fraught with meanings than ever before.

“Food has always been a means for communicating status, but these days it is increasingly a conduit for identity, passion, enjoyment and adventurousness as well as a way to spend time. The significance of food is further complicated by food-related environmental questions,” Jallinoja says.

Food is no longer just related to emphasising wealth; it involves many types of differentiation.

“Food can communicate ethical consumption, ecological activity, or keeping up with the spirit of the times,” Jallinoja points out.

To illustrate, Jallinoja compares using food as a means of communication to the wearing of yoga pants.

“During the past few years, there has been an interesting trend of wearing yoga pants in public places. That people may currently walk the streets in yoga pants is not just due to it being handy on the way to the yoga studio. Such people also communicate that they are keeping up with the times because they are doing fashionable physical and spiritual exercises and that they have been able to build perfect glutes,” Jallinoja explains.

At the same time as food has become a symbol for one’s identity, the public debate on food has also changed. Jallinoja mentions the so‑called “fat wars” as an example. Jallinoja and her colleagues analysed the fat wars that were waged on the pages of Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest national daily, from the 1970s to 2013. Even though their analysis ends with data from 2013, the wars still continue.

“Previously, the debate was primarily framed as a public health issue, but in the 2000s the fat question was increasingly framed around enjoying food and the consumer’s right to choose. These days, a debate may begin with a public health expert presenting some issue of concern, but the debate might then proceed to a discussion on the cultural meanings of the milk in your latte,” Jallinoja says.

New voices, such as chefs, baristas and organic farmers, increasingly take over from those with expertise in public health, nutrition and internal medicine. Ordinary consumers also participate in the debate by attacking “health nazis” and demanding the right to eat butter, for example.

“While a chef might have previously concentrated on the aesthetics and taste of food, he or she now talks about the meaning of health and how healthiness and enjoyment should be emphasised. In other words, he or she takes a stand on health,” Jallinoja explains.

In the contemporary media debates on health, the patients and consumers with personal experience of some foods or illnesses are increasingly given a voice alongside academic experts. This sometimes creates awkward situations.

“What should a professor with considerable expertise in a certain discipline do when he or she is invited to a television debate and could use a few choice arguments to out‑argue the layperson – an expert by experience – who is also participating? Would that be pleasant to watch?” Jallinoja asks.

Nevertheless, Jallinoja is of the opinion that experts should descend from their ivory towers and at least listen to what other people have to say. Some value should be afforded to people’s experiences, even though personal experiences cannot be compared to large population-level data on the association of illnesses and lifestyles.

“Researchers should at least participate in social media debates. The stupidest thing to do would be to say that the debate on social media is completely foolish and pointless and doesn’t concern researchers,” Jallinoja points out.

Besides, sometimes a non-expert might say something essential.

“Public health experts have repeatedly criticised the fat and sugar content of the doughnuts served to Finnish conscripts at garrison canteens. These accusations have been countered by the representatives of the canteens who say that the doughnuts are not about nutrition but about nourishing the soul,” Jallinoja says.

That, too, is sometimes needed amidst all the healthism.

Piia Jallinoja

  • Jallinoja is professor of the sociology of health and illness at the University of Tampere.
  • She has previously worked as Director of the Consumer Society Research Centre at the University of Helsinki and as head of unit and senior researcher at the National Institute for Health and Welfare.
  • Jallinoja has researched, among other things, the choices and meanings related to health and lifestyles. She has more recently concentrated on the interrelationships of health, sustainable development and food.
  • She divides her time between Tampere and Helsinki.
  • Her family includes a husband, two adult daughters and a cat.
  • “The most pleasurable food is something that I enjoy together with my husband somewhere abroad, most recently on the East Coast of the United States,” she says.

Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall