An examination of nutrition transition theory

Prof. Stanley Ulijaszek, Oxford University, Directof of Institute of Social & Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford

Nutrition transition theory describes major changes in the nutritional health of human populations which are determined by the interplay of economic, demographic, environmental and cultural change. Within this scheme there are five patterns of nutritional health that societies may progress through, starting with formations prior to the emergence of agriculture when hunting and gathering predominated. It proceeds to the origins of agriculture, through the introduction of agricultural and industrial technology, urbanization and economic improvement, and a post-industrial age that has yet to be attained. This stylised synopsis of patterns of change represents a progressive continuum of anticipated change, based on processes observed in industrialized western nations which are postulated to be occurring with greater rapidity and over a shorter timescale in developing countries at present. While useful in contextualizing dietary and nutritional change in relation to health, the scheme is an ethnocentric imposition of health change processes that took place in industrialized nations onto nations of differing prehistories and histories undergoing industrialization now. In most cases, currently economically-emerging nations have experienced varying periods of colonial subservience, and the extent to which this shapes their present-day industrialization and food supply systems remains unanalysed by nutrition transition theorists. Using the interrelated case of Mexico, Spain and the United States, this lecture examines how historical processes continue to shape food systems and nutrition transition to the present day.