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What is Nutritional Anthropology?

Several fruits and vegetables

Nutritional Anthropology is one of the many specialties in Anthropology. Its focus is nutrition, which is why it’s called Nutritional Anthropology. Nutritional Anthropology includes many topics–this blog post will mention just some of the possibilities!

The Biocultural Approach

Often, Anthropologists who focus on Nutritional Anthropology use something called a biocultural approach. A biocultural approach is when you are interested in how culture and biology intersect. A biocultural approach often uses both Cultural Anthropology and Physical/Biological Anthropology to study a problem, and may even include Archaeology and Linguistics as well! So, if you take a close look at the topics of Nutritional Anthropology, you will notice that they often seem to cross over some of the 4 fields of Anthropology. For more information on the biocultural approach, check out the “Biocultural Anthropology” entry in the Oxford Bibliographies on this website

Topics in Nutritional Anthropology

An orange tree with several bright ripe oranges.

Ancient Diets

One topic in Nutritional Anthropology is ancient diets. This includes what early human ancestors ate. How do we know what they ate? We study microwear patterns on teeth–these are tiny markings (like scratches and pits) on teeth from eating food. We also use stable isotope analysis. An example of a stable isotope is carbon. Stable isotopes in food are integrated into the person’s teeth and bones. Then these parts of the body have an isotopic composition that is similar to the food. So, by comparing the isotopic compositions of the tissues and different foods, we can determine what foods were eaten. 

Food Taboos

Every culture has certain foods that they will not eat. For example, in the USA, we do not eat snakes, but in some places in China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam (among other places) they do. When a culture won’t eat a certain food, it is called a food taboo. Some food taboos are in effect only during certain situations, like pregnancy. For example, in one culture in Kenya, eating meat and eggs is forbidden for pregnant women. This can have implications for health and nutrition if the women don’t get protein and other nutrients from other sources. Nutritional Anthropologists study these food taboos and their nutritional and health implications.

A tan stuffed bear, aqua colored baby bottle, and white socks with yellow stripes.

Infant/Child Feeding Practices

Different cultures have different ways of feeding infants and young children, and these are studied by Nutritional Anthropologists. Many cultures are now using bottle-feeding rather than breastfeeding, and this has implications for the health of the baby. In many places in the world, bottle feeding cannot be done safely due to unsafe water and other concerns. Also, different cultures have different beliefs and practices when it comes to introducing local foods into an infant’s diet. An infant starts to need food as a supplement to breastmilk at about 6 months of age, but they don’t have enough teeth to chew an adult diet. So, some cultures pre-chew foods before giving them to babies–this is called premastication. Our ancestors may have dealt with this situation in the same way!


It may be surprising, but in today’s world, there are still many people around the world suffering from undernutrition. Undernutrition does not necessarily mean starvation, but a lack of protein, energy, and/or vitamins and minerals. Infants and young children who are undernourished are more likely to die, usually because their immune system is not strong enough to fight off diseases.  In fact, a 2008 study showed that 35% of the deaths of infants and young children around the world were due to undernutrition. Nutritional Anthropologists study undernutrition and its causes, and its effects on human development.


Overnutrition is also known as obesity. In the USA, this is usually seen as a negative thing, and being fat is stigmatized. But in some other cultures, being overweight is seen as beautiful, or a sign that you are healthy or wealthy. In a culture in West Africa, girls are force-fed food so that they will develop fat rolls and be seen as beautiful so that men will want to marry them. In some Jamaican communities, being thin is seen as being sickly and unloved, while being larger is associated with happiness and vitality. So, why are so many of us in the world obese today? An evolutionary perspective on obesity shows that high-calorie foods are available 24/7 now, compared to high-calorie foods being rarer in ancient times. So it is easy for us to overeat–our food environment is very different than it was in the past. Nutritional Anthropologists study this overnutrition, and its causes and consequences. 

A cooked turkey on a table with drinking glasses and other food.

Food & Identity

You may not think of it this way, but food reflects identity, including gender, age, and social class. For example, in the USA eating beef is seen as manly. Another example can be seen with the obentōs in Japan, which are special lunches for young children with miniature portions that are made like pieces of art. This practice of creating obentōs has a significance in Japanese culture that is more than just food–it is connected to a mother’s identity.

Food & Symbolism

Food can also be symbolic–for example, in the USA, turkey is a symbol of the Thanksgiving holiday. As another example, some food is considered “comfort food,” but different cultures and different generations have different ideas of which foods are considered that. In the USA, some people consider macaroni and cheese to be a comfort food, for example. Comfort foods symbolize things like home, security, and kind grandmothers.

Learn More

So, this blog post has discussed several topics in Nutritional Anthropology, but there are many more! If you are interested in learning more about Nutritional Anthropology, check out the entry “Nutritional Anthropology” written by Cengage on at this link.

Also, below is a SlideShare presentation with the information from this blog post!

Thanks for reading!