Public food discourses and recipient designed health campaigns

Ann Merrit Rikke Nielsen

Food consumption and health are intrinsically related, and the idea of the state as a public disseminator of guidelines for a healthy diet is a staple in most western societies. Food, however, means a lot of different things to different people, and a number of discourses on food, eating and health are competing in the public sphere, making it difficult for lay people and even professionals to know how to eat healthily. While in 2009, 47% of the total adult Danish population were overweight or obese, this applied to 59% of people with no education beyond elementary school and people on disability pensions, compared to 36.9% of people with a university degree. It is not unknown that the most disadvantaged population groups have a much higher risk of being overweight or obese and are therefore more likely to receive treatment for conditions such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Yet the language and discourses found in the state’s official guidelines for healthy food consumption are very far from the discourses embraced by these population groups. This skewing of health awareness is a problem in several ways: the obese person has an impaired quality of life, both due to being overweight, which in modern western societies has become a stigma, and due to the state’s massive health costs of treating the sequelae of obesity.

Much has been done by public stakeholders. such as the Danish Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, to address this problem by informing the public about healthy eating habits. This project aims to address the problem from a different angle: using anthropological observation, interviews, focus groups and analysis tools such as sociopragmatics and discourse analysis, it uncovers how the most disadvantaged population groups talk about and perceive food, eating and health, in order to reveal the associated discourses they are interpelled into. With the aid of the informants, new and different kinds of health campaigns will be designed, tailored to reach and motivate the people who need this the most. A pilot study mapping discourses on food and eating in the public sphere in Denmark was undertaken in autumn 2013.