Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Claude Fischler: Americans need to stop multitasking while eating alone

Americans need to stop multitasking while eating alone, argues French sociologist Claude Fischler


Fischler and his colleagues surveyed 7,000 people from the United States and five European nations (France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and England) about their attitudes toward food and health. They found a spectrum of attitudes, with the U.S. occupying one extreme end and France, the other.

Here in the good ol' U.S. of A, our national identity as disparate, atomized individuals is reflected in how we see our food: nothing more than a sum of individual nutrients that can be customized to fit the health needs and tastes of the individual. Americans value choice in their diets above almost all else. They want to build a diet especially for their bodies and what they choose to put in their bodies is always their choice. The American obsession with choice stood out markedly from the other five countries surveyed, and is the case in other studies as well.

On the other hand, the French made clear that "not all eating is eating." Eating "requires a certain configuration of time, space, and people" to constitute a meal. For example, a Frenchwoman, Fischler recounted, would tell researchers that she hadn't eaten all day but then state plainly that she bought and consumed a pastry from a baker's stand. The French also honed in on food's quality and culinary identity: How does it taste? Where does it come from? How fresh is it?

It's not just what you're eating, it's who you're eating. Er, with! Who you're eating with.

Along these same lines, the English-speaking countries in the study (U.S. and Britain) distinguished themselves from the continental European nations (France, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy) by describing health as the main purpose of eating. For the others, health is a secondary benefit; social pleasures and the joy of life dominate continental Europeans' discussions about eating. As one Italian put it, "to eat good fish and drink good wine" with friends is the true meaning of eating well. That sounds convivial, even commensal. It also sounds worlds away from the anxiety revealed by middle-aged American women weighing the protein and carbohydrates necessary to eat well.

It's not surprising that attitudes toward eating differ among countries and cultures. But what are the consequences of those differences?

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