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Building on his rich background in neuroanthropology, in The Omnivorous Mind, John S. Allen argues that we humans have evolved a "theory of food", as an 'internal, cognitive representation of our diets in our minds'. (262) According to Allen, this theory of food is, like our theory of mind, the function of a number of neural networks in the brain, (264) and serves to influence the way that each individual classifies, experiences and engages with food. Allen draws parallels between this theory of food and language, arguing that both are biocultural phenomena, (64-5) which are effortlessly formed during a critical period of childhood development. (263).
Throughout the book, Allen's style is engaging and fluid. He appeals to numerous scientific studies and recent academic articles in support of his claims, and the extent of his scholarship is quite striking, but his text is also peppered with personal anecdotes and pop culture references. His avoidance of terminologically heavy prose and use of illustrations makes the book accessible to lay readers and budding students of anthropology alike. However, there is a trade-off here in that Allen's meandering style may frustrate some of his more expert readers who could feel as though it sometimes lacks a little academic rigour. The purpose of each chapter is not always clear at the outset, and the reader sometimes needs to work to understand the importance and relevance of each section to the overall narrative.
Nonetheless, there is much to recommend this volume. Of the book's 8 chapters (all of which are split into more manageable subsections), chapters 2, 4 and 6 are most satisfying. In chapter 2, Allen explains the implications of human evolutionary history on diet, tracing food preferences back to some of our earliest primate ancestors. As part of this project, he discusses the link between dietary changes and physiological factors, such as that between a meatier diet and increasing brain size. He relates the "hunting hypothesis" (that technological advances in catching prey played a causal role in increasing brain size), and opposes it to the "fish-brain hypothesis" (that the initial adoption of easily gathered aquatic foods led to a larger brain, which in turn led to technological advances), and makes a good case for either side of the debate. Allen does not commit himself to a definitive account of the link between diet and brain size however, perhaps because the issue is so contentious. The same chapter also discusses the impact of increasing brain size on culture, the effect of agriculture on diet and health, and the recent fashion for adopting a Paleolithic diet.
Chapter 4's main focus is the obesity epidemic, which Allen explains as the result of 'placing bodies and minds evolved for one environment in one that is wholly different'. (115) He suggests that the human propensity to eat to excess when food is abundant would have been advantageous in our evolutionary past, and suggests that, in addition, feasting practices have led to an association between a feeling of being over-full and one of social well-being. (112) So too, Allen discusses how our calorie-hungry large brains would have led our ancestors to develop preferences for high energy foods, such as fatty bone marrow or sweet ripe fruits, and proposes that these preferences are only problematic in our current, somewhat artificial, food environment in which refined sugars and fats are newly abundant.
In chapter 4, Allen also discusses the complex role of certain hormones (such as leptin) in regulating eating behavior, examines the negative effects of obesity on brain function, and reports the results of functional neuroimaging studies which suggest that individuals with a higher BMI cognitively process food differently from those of a healthy weight. (Stice's study, which shows that obese young females have a heightened anticipation of the pleasure that they will receive from drinking a chocolate milkshake, along with a 'muted response' in the brain's reward pathways after consumption (p.138).) Ultimately, Allen suggests that personalized neuroimaging profiles may, in the future, enable individuals to change the way that they eat by changing the way that they cognitively process food, (133) but he does not explore how this might be achieved. To a lesser extent, the chapter also seeks to explain anorexia as a product of both genetic and environmental factors. (142) Allen's discussion in chapter 4 is informative and he does a good job of shedding some light on the role of various factors in causing and perpetuating the obesity epidemic.
Chapter 6 discusses the manner in which the human brain categorizes the world, and seeks to apply these observations to food. Using the example of the Karam people of New Guinea, who differ from Westerners in not identifying the cassowary as a bird, Allen makes the interesting observation that different cultures categorize objects in quite different ways. (191-5) The same is true, he suggests, when it comes to food - what is classed as a food by some people, is not by others. He discusses four strategies that are used by individuals in the acquisition of perceptual categories and discusses how these strategies may affect how those categories are applied. The chapter also discusses the phenomenon of labeling foods or their contents (such as eggs, cholesterol and pork) "good" or "bad" in either a nutritional or moral sense.
Other chapters deal with the appeal of crispy foods (chapter 1), the effect of biology and culture on the sense of taste (chapter 3), the relationship between food and memory (chapter 5), and the employment of creativity in relation to diet (chapter 7). Each section is interesting in its own right and feeds into Allen's wider project, but chapter 1 seems a little out of place at the beginning of the book. For Allen, his musings about crispy foods are a good place to start because he feels they capture his approach to the subject as a whole, (p.11: 'I look at crispy… as an exemplar of my biocultural approach to the human diet.') but chapter 2, concerning our dietary history, might seem like a more natural place to start, and Allen's thoughts about crispiness perhaps better placed at the culmination of his argument. Furthermore, the reader may wonder whether chapter 1's project, which is to explain the strong appeal of crispy foods to humans by pointing to the nutritional value of crispy insects and fresh fruit in our evolutionary history, requires more motivation. Though Allen takes the appeal of crispy foods to be 'self-evident', (9) and quotes the author of a popular cookbook who claims that adding the buzzword 'crispy' makes a food more appealing, (8) there is little in the way of concrete evidence for thinking that crispiness itself really has a level of appeal that needs explaining. Yet, without this, chapter 1 lacks a strong foundation.
In the final chapter of the book (chapter 8), Allen suggests that, if he is right that every individual has a theory of food as the product of a complex of neural networks in the brain, then activities involving food (such as sourcing ingredients, and planning and preparing meals) might be used by the elderly as a method of cognitive enhancement, to protect them against the effects of brain deterioration and diseases such as Alzheimer's. (269-71) If so, an implication is that schemes that provide meals to the elderly, which remove the cognitive demands associated with food, may benefit them in one way, whilst hindering them in another. The advantages of such schemes ought, therefore, to be balanced with the cost of removing this cognitive stimulus.
© 2012 G. Fay Edwards
G. Fay Edwards, Washington University in St. Louis