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On the Power and Nourishment of Multidisciplinary Inquiry: Remembering Adele H. Hite

We were saddened to hear of the passing of our dear colleague Adele H. Hite in April 2022. Adele was a co-founding member of the Nutrire CoLab and we deeply appreciated her contributions to our thinking and most of all, her wickedly smart, generous and witty spirit.

Nutrire CoLab is comprised of a group of women scholars who identify as feminist and are mostly anthropologists. Nutrire is from the Latin, “to feed, to cherish.”  As feminist scholars based in the US, Mexico, Australia, and South Africa who work in places all over the globe, we seek to nourish each other: sharing resources, co-mentoring, and co-laboring to produce new bodies of scholarly work and public engagement. While we did not collectively have the privilege of sharing day-to-day life with Adele we would like to pay tribute to the very particular, unique, and significant contributions Adele made to our thinking, specifically, and to understanding the relationship (or non-relationship) between diet and disease more broadly. This piece is a reflection of those contributions.

The future members of the Nutrire CoLab met Adele in 2018 when she responded to a call for papers for a panel proposed by Gálvez, Carney, and Yates-Doerr for the 2018 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. We called the panel “Chronic Disaster.” Our proposal asserted: 

“Chronic, non-communicable, diet-related illness is different from other kinds of public health concerns in that its etiology— the way people understand the pathways for becoming sick— is firmly rooted in personal behavior.  Even though public health research indicates that personal behavior is not the main factor contributing to chronic disease, this idea is persistent. In fact, overwhelming evidence indicates that structural factors such as social and economic disparities; food distribution, availability, and regulations; along with access to preventive care, play the biggest roles in rates of chronic disease. Nevertheless, common-sense understandings of diet-related disease in popular discourse and public policy continue to put the individual at the center. Diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions are imagined to rest within the control and power of the individual (Gálvez, Carney, and Yates-Doerr 2018).” 

Adele submitted an exciting proposal for a paper on “Discourse Transitions” (a riff on the idea of “the Nutrition Transition”) and she joined our panel in San José, California that November. At the time, she acknowledged and even apologized for not being an anthropologist, thanking us for including her. But the fact is that Adele’s thinking was not only relevant to our panel, in a disciplinary-specific conference setting–it altered our thinking and collaborations permanently. 

Adele Hite stands at a podium in San Jose, California in front of a picture of a food group chart. The Screen in the background says, “For Health… eat some food from each group… every day!”

Only a few of us knew that at the time we met her, she was already battling the illness that would claim her life. And little did we know that Adele was experiencing more than fish-out-of-water feelings on an anthropology panel. After earning a MA in Public Health and completing Registered Dietitian training, she had left the graduate program in Nutritional Epidemiology at UNC-Chapel Hill to pursue her Ph.D. in a totally different discipline. When we met her, she was just finishing her doctorate in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media at North Carolina State. It is sobering, but perhaps not surprising, that Adele was made to feel out of place in her prior disciplinary home: her incisive analysis is radically disruptive to received notions of the relationship between diet and health. It is because of Adele that we went on to adopt the slogan #notjustdiet as a shorthand way of reminding ourselves and our interlocutors that a corrective is needed to the facile association too often made between diet and health. 

As she pointed out then, very often people mistakenly (are made to) think that they can change their health by individually changing the foods they do or do not eat, but diet is typically but a small part of broader ecosystems of health. She wanted us to consider how corporations and neoliberal public health infrastructures that emphasize consumer choice benefit from this historically and culturally specific rhetorical centering of dietary change instead of other actions that might impact health. It is because of Adele’s energizing clarity that we were able to put into words what made our collective and our part- interdisciplinary/part-anthropological, feminist approach different from normative understandings of chronic metabolic conditions like diabetes.

At that 2018 AAA meeting, Adele gave a paper entitled “Nutritional Epidemiology of Chronic Disease and the Shifting Definition of ‘Healthy Diet.’” Drawing on her training and licensing as a dietitian and her graduate studies in communication and rhetoric, Adele asked a question: 

“Even as the phrase “healthy diet” has come to refer to a diet that reduces the risk of chronic disease, there are obvious gaps in our knowledge about what sort of diet does this. But the question of what diet will reduce chronic disease obscures a more basic question, namely, ‘How did we come to believe diet and chronic disease are linked in the first place?'” (Hite 2018)

This question stopped us in our tracks. The members of our double panel were already deeply engaged in disentangling the relationship between chronic disease and diet, urging greater attention to the structural factors which disparately determine health outcomes and life expectancy in our globalizing world. Adele put this in such stark and galvanizing terms that it altered our thinking and continues to alter the larger interdisciplinary field of study of chronic disease.

In her 2019 dissertation, Adele examines the discursive production of the idea that chronic disease and diet are connected in the latter decades of the 20th century. With powerful evidence, she demonstrates that the linkages were not evidence-based. Rather, they were influenced by specific political and economic interests that preferred to frame the rise in chronic disease as a problem of individual behavior that could be corrected through dietary guidance rather than a structural problem of socio-economic disparities. She writes: 

“The rhetoric surrounding ‘healthy diet’ in 21st century America suggests that managing the relationship between food and chronic disease is simple: either a ‘simple’ matter of controlling the types of food eaten or a ‘simple’ matter of restricting the amounts of food eaten, or both. This seems to be a fairly commonsensical notion―you can’t just eat whatever you want as much as you want without suffering the consequences of obesity and chronic disease. However, as I argue here, although this notion has roots in the history of moral valuation of bodies and eating practices, it has only recently been given the imprimatur of nutrition science and public health nutrition policy.” (Hite 2019:1)

The basic precepts of what constitutes a “healthy diet” are subject to disagreement among dietetics and nutrition scientists. But also, Adele notes, the very idea that there is such a thing as a healthy diet and that it is causally connected to chronic disease risk is less a product of science and more one of social, political and economic expediency. By painstakingly chronicling the production of dietary guidelines in the United States, Adele shows that the shift from dietary interventions being focused on nutritional insufficiency to concerns about overconsumption and obesity is a product of a moment in US history when, 

“Policymakers were concerned about rising healthcare costs, which were seen as a threat to economic growth, impacting prices, wages, and profits, as corporations passed on the costs of medical benefits to consumers (Crawford 1977:666). Public anxiety—particularly in white, middle-class populations—encompassed issues of health, but also extended to concerns about the environment, world hunger, and energy use” (Garrett and Hite 2014).

“Responsible” citizenship and governance came to have more to do with controlling the appetites and consumption of some and privileging the supposed self-control of the imagined abstemious, thin, white middle-class consumer. The federal dietary guidelines were negotiated with and for US corporations, were adopted against the opposition of dietitians and nutritionists, and without evidence of their effectiveness. Their adoption was not associated with a decline in the health outcomes (rates of chronic disease and obesity) that they purported to address, but rather their continued rise. This failure has been, Adele argues, excused as a problem of the failure of individuals to understand and follow dietary guidance rather than of the guidance itself. In other publications, Adele notes how  “the development of nutrition policy for the prevention of chronic disease is not only the product of historical contingencies and political expediencies, but a reflection of ideological influences characteristic of white, progressive, male, upper-middle-class American thinking in the 1970s.” This included, she states, “a new generation of nutritional epidemiologists, led by Walter Willett and researchers at Harvard…and [the] methodology of NECD [nutritional epidemiology of chronic disease]” (Hite 2018b).

In the introduction to a multi-authored forum we wrote for American Anthropologist, we draw upon biological and cultural knowledges to reject the question of whether personal responsibility might play a causal role in dietary disease (Gálvez, Carney, and Yates-Doerr 2020). Adele Hite’s essay on the rhetoric of “dietary lifestyle” in that collection productively reverses the question to ask: Under what circumstances would it be reasonable to assign individual responsibility for health and illness on the basis of what a person chose to eat or not eat? After all, in only a few exceptions (e.g., alcohol-liver disease and sugar-dental caries) have scientists made causal associations between what people eat and chronic disease. She writes:

“When everything we think we know about dietary guidance for prevention of chronic disease has been determined by the eating habits and worldviews of a privileged few, the application of this guidance to others is questionable, at best…Even as food-system reform and food sovereignty activism seeks to move away from reductionist, expert-oriented definitions of ‘healthy food,’ defining chronic diseases as ‘diet-related’ reinforces problematic claims to scientific certainty, claims that ultimately perpetuate class-based and race-based notions about what it means to ‘eat right.’ (Hite 2020)”

Adele’s generous and broad intellectual scholarship was music to our ears, not only because of her incisive capacity to focus on how nutrition science has been produced as an epistemological canon, but also because she was a highly reflexive thinker. There are few scholars trained in nutrition and dietetics who open themselves up to such reflexive thought and critique, even fewer who so generously engage with social scientists, listening, responding and genuinely expanding the field. At our Nutrire meeting at Brown in April 2019, we remember Adele talking late into the night with us about her shifting standpoints, marveling at her dexterity in disciplinary boundary-crossing. We were in awe of her intellectual agility and generosity.

Adele received her Ph.D. at the age of 55 and described herself to some of us in conversation as a “late-in-life Ph.D.” But she was a lifelong scholar whose contributions are impossible to sum up in a single list. Her multiple graduate degrees and publications are conventional markers of this, but we consider the full scope of her intellectual production to be the best indicator. In addition to numerous publications, collaborations, conference presentations, and more, she produced a prolific blog, Eathropology, where she energetically engaged with, and generated, debates, analyses, humorous take downs, generous accompaniment of those struggling with health issues, and more. We were both saddened and amazed when we lost Adele at how much bigger her lasting legacy on our fields of study and our world was than we had realized, even as we collaborated and co-authored with her. Her legacy, the acuity, and power of her analyses will live on in us and our work, and we are grateful for the short time we had with her.

Bibliography

Gálvez, Alyshia. Megan Carney, and Emily Yates-Doerr. 2018. Proposal submitted to the American Anthropological Association annual meetings.

— 2020. “Vital topics forum chronic disaster: reimagining noncommunicable chronic disease.” Am Anthropol 122: 639-665.

Broad, Garrett, and Adele Hite. 2014. “Nutrition troubles.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 14(3): 5-16.

Hite, Adele H. 2018a. Conference Paper, American Anthropological Association annual meeting. 

— 2018b. Nutritional epidemiology of chronic disease and defining “healthy diet”. Global Food History, 4(2): 207-225.

— 2019. A material-discursive exploration of “healthy food” and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. North Carolina State University.

— 2020. “A Critical Perspective on ‘Diet-Related’ Diseases,” in Gálvez, A., M. Carney, and E. Yates-Doerr. “Vital Topics Forum, Chronic Disaster: Reimagining Noncommunicable Chronic Disease.” Am Anthropol 122: 651-652.

Biography

Nutrire CoLab is comprised of a group of women scholars who identify as feminist and are mostly anthropologists. Nutrire is from the Latin, “to feed, to cherish.” In Spanish, nutriré means “I will nourish.” We originally came together to articulate a critique of the framing of metabolic illnesses as “diet-related” and to offer instead an understanding of these as a result of policies that are racist, patriarchal and rooted in settler colonialism. In contrast to framings of structural violence that focus on fast-moving disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, and other rapid causes of mortality, we focus on the mundane, slow and everyday forms of violence that result in diabetes and other metabolic conditions. As feminist scholars, we seek to nourish each other: sharing resources, co-mentoring, and co-laboring to produce new bodies of scholarly work and public engagement.

Nutrire members include Diana Burnett, Megan A. Carney, Lauren Carruth, Sarah Chard, Maggie Dickinson, Alyshia Gálvez, Hanna Garth, Jessica Hardin, Adele Hite, Hi’ilei Hobart, Heather Howard, Lenore Manderson, Emily Mendenhall, Ariana Ochoa Camacho, Abril Saldaña-Tejeda, Dana Simmons, Natali Valdez, Emily Vasquez, Megan Warin, and Emily Yates-Doerr. Sample CoLab publications are “DuoEthnography as Transformative Praxis” (Valdez et al., 2022) and “Anthropologists respond to the Lancet EAT commission (Burnett et al., 2021). The Nutrire podcast exploring the themes of our work can be found here. Follow us on Twitter @NutrireCo-Lab, where you can search the hashtag #NotJustDiet to learn more about Adele’s influence on our thinking and work. 


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