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Sociology of Food: Food Consumption and Eating Disorders

The sociology of food may be defined as a science that deals with the relationship of human societies and the food they consume, including the history of food consumption habits. Related to habits of food consumption are eating disorders, which are the physical and psychological illnesses defined by abnormal eating behaviors that negatively affects a person’s well-being.

A Brief History of Food

Since the appearance of a mankind on the surface of the Earth, food has been the necessity of life, purposely for nourishment. Early humans struggled to get food by hunting or gathering because it was the only way to access the food they needed to survive. While our access to and use of food has evolved over the centuries, food remains an incredibly important piece of human life.

As clocks turned and years passed, the primary means of accessing food, i.e., hunting and gathering, gradually developed into agriculture. Farming began approximately 10,000 years ago when the population of humans began to grow. People started farming for the fear of starvation and misery. Farming provides more food to people than the former methods of hunting and gathering. This development, as the years went on, led to a norm where food is now a way to bring cultures and people together.

Sociology of Food and Culture

To many cultures around the world, food is what brings people together. For example, the tradition of families eating together around tables displays cohesiveness and love with one another among the family members. As the popular Kenyan proverb says “eating is brotherhood.” It proved the importance in hospitality in building and strengthening the bond of relationships between people. Additionally, food signifies information about our identities, e.g., our culture, race, and region. Moreover, it has its social, symbolic, economic and political roles, which include production, distribution, and consumption.

According to sociologists, there are different groups of food divided by their purposes and meanings such as cultural foods, which usually are a staple for a specific culture. For example, Tuwo to northern Nigerian native Hausas is their cultural food likewise Eba to Igbo of the Southern part. Religion also influences food consumption. For instance, only kosher foods are permitted in Judaism and halal foods in Islam, but beef is restricted to Hindus.

Sociology of Food Consumption and Preservation

There are also prestigious foods which reflect the socioeconomic status of someone using it, and body image foods which are mainly consumed for the betterment of the body. Moreover, there are foods which are specifically consumed for an identified health problem, as in the case of the food eaten for healthy pregnancy, the specific food recommended for people suffering from diabetes, and the nutritious foods eaten by those suffering from malnutrition.

Over the centuries, there have been different ways of preparing and conserving foods before consumption. Still, some foods are eaten in their raw form as fruits and vegetables, while others need to be cooked like grains, tubers and beef. In addition, food is conserved by different physical and chemical means to make them stay for a long period of time without perishing. Such preservation methods include drying, smoking, and salting, to name a few.

All living things, be it plants or animals, have their need for nourishment in common. Without nourishment, they would have all diminished from the earth’s surface. Unfortunately, some cultures impose a distracting factor related to nourishment and food, leading to eating disorders.

What are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are the complex mental illness that often need medical and psychological experts to alter their course. Sometimes, eating disorders lead to serious negative outcomes or even death if left untreated. Therefore, we may consider them a social problem worthy of sociological analysis.

Anorexia Nervosa

There are many types of eating disorder that are well-known by the public. Anorexia Nervosa is likely the most well-known. It is generally observed among women, rather than men, during adolescence or early adulthood. People with anorexia consider themselves to be overweight, leading to the monitoring of their own weight by avoiding eating certain foods and having a very restricted eating patterns, even when they are dangerously underweight.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa is another well-known eating disorder that typically develops during adolescence and early adulthood. Like anorexia, it is less common among men. People with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder eat a large amount of food frequently in a specific period of time followed by purging of that food. In each of the binge eating episodes a person with this disorder losses control and eats a large amount of food until he become painfully full. Usually, people with bulimia develop feelings of distress, shame, guilt and disgust especially when thinking about their binge eating behavior.


Pica is another eating disorder which involves consumption of non-food materials such as chalk, dirt, ice, paper, cloth, soap, detergents and so on. This is mostly observed in children, pregnant women and people with psychological disabilities.

A Sociology of Eating Disorders

There are different factors contributing to these disorders. Psychological and emotional health may be the most well-known factors leading to eating disorders. Most people suffering from them have low self-esteem, impulsive behavior or troubled relationships. Genetic factors can also be a factor in developing an eating disorder. However, the social and cultural factors surrounding food, appearance, health, and weight cannot be overlooked as major causes of eating disorders.

As the old saying goes, “for any problem, there must be a solution” and “for every illness, there must be cure.” Most importantly among the remedies for eating disorder is seeking help and advice from experts concerning the eating habits. Secondly, developing habits of eating together with the family and seeking advice from friends and families could propose a sociological solution.

Final Thoughts on the Sociology of Food and Eating Disorders

In conclusion, the socialization of people and the relationships between them are promoted through the act of sharing food together; including production, preservation, processing and consumption. Historically, foods play a great role in reshaping community developments in economic, social and industrial fields.

Nonetheless, the factors that play a vital role in causing deviant factors in day to day food consumption (i.e., eating disorders) should be seen through and cured before its effects worsen.

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Mubarak Said

Mubarak Said is a poet, an award winning essayist and a short story writer from Funakaye Local Government of Gombe state, Nigeria. Said was a winner of 2020 ANCOPPS essay writing competition in Gombe state. He participated in many secondary schools competitions , including FRSC essay writing competition and so. His works have been published by different Nigerian and international news papers and magazines as World voices magazine, the pinecone review, beatnikcowboy, Susa Africa, Opinion Nigeria, daily trust and many others