More than fad diets and fodder – food can help us reconnect

Food is an emotive subject: we love it, we hate it; we over-eat, we under-eat; we offer hospitality with it, we punish ourselves by depriving ourselves from it. 

It’s everywhere, and something we all have in common.

But at the same time as being policed to eat less, or to follow the most recent celebrity-endorsed clean fad diet, we grow ever fatter and consequently, sicker. We have lost our true connection with food, mainly due to our ‘no longer fit for purpose’ industrial food system, which fails the people most in need, due to its distorted and unequal access (i.e. people are going hungry at the same time as tonnes of food being wasted). 

With poverty, hunger and food banks shamefully topics of national debate in the UK, there is an urgent need to get creative with the way we tackle social inequalities.

My research is all about finding creative ways to engage with people to share their food stories, providing them with a safe space to do so and giving them a voice to express their food experiences.

Food as a Lifestyle Motivator

My project Food as a Lifestyle Motivator (FLM) explored the use of creative approaches to engage with ‘harder to reach’ individuals in discussions about their wellbeing. Food, as well as being central to many health concerns, may also be a powerful ‘lifestyle motivator’ – a catalyst for change for those on the edges of society. 

For example, within the project, I gave six homeless individuals a camera and asked them take photos of their own food activities over a 10-day period. This was the only direction they received and, while some took photos of cows in fields, or the milk in their tea, others took photos of their pets, the food they eat and the canteen – all telling a story about what food means to them.

Even asking something as simple as ‘what’s the weirdest food you’ve ever eaten?’ can get somebody to open up and talk about things they never would otherwise, which can be a stepping stone to ongoing wellbeing dialogues.

During the FLM project, powerful visual and narrative food-themed data were generated that provided a ‘voice’ for individuals, challenging traditional research models and identifying simple yet innovative approaches for engaging and empowering community groups that are often ‘harder-to-reach’.

Dr Pettinger has been selected to appear at the British Academy Summer Showcase 2019:

She is one of fifteen academics from all over the UK who will appearing at the London event on 21-22 June, and will be presenting her Food as a Lifestyle Motivator project.

Find out more about the British Academy Summer Showcase

Creative methods in food research

Creative approaches are constantly evolving. In my research, I’ve used short films and collaging with community groups such as homeless individuals, women with drug addictions and mental health sufferers so that the attendees can discover the power of creative food dialogues. The conversations ignited by these approaches can set foundations for future wellbeing work.

My interest is in the way in which arts-based methods – including photography, film and collage (and others yet to be explored!) – can help reveal and give voice to perspectives on food issues, which remain otherwise absent from research and policy debates. 

The use of such creative measures with our participants has shown that food can have a positive effect, acting as a catalyst to connect people. This generates a virtuous circle in which food promotes engagement and engagement promotes interest in self-care.

The role of a dietitian is briefly described as assessing, diagnosing and treating dietary and nutritional problems, promoting good health, wellbeing and preventing disease in individuals and communities. Using creative and participatory approaches to help do this is a new and innovative concept, which extends the remit of dietetic practice, something I’m passionate about exploring further. Here at the University of Plymouth we really do cover a diverse scope of nutrition and dietetic research, everything from lab-based food research to social justice and disease prevention.

So when you’re next preparing food, or even considering what to have for dinner, take a moment to remember the memories and feelings that you experience, or even take pictures to annotate and explore these. Or think about those individuals who are in a very different situation from yours and how they might feel about food. You’ll be surprised at what comes up, and how powerful it can be to re-connect mindfully to the food you eat – and sharing the stories and experiences that food brings about can help build social connections and change society for the better. 

Why not add your food story one social media? #LetsShareFoodStories @DrCPettingerRD

Are you interested in studying dietetics?

A lot of people think dietitians just advise and support people with weight problems. That's a relatively small part of what they do.  

Academic lead, Dr Avril Collinson talks you through the key features of our BSc (Hons) Dietetics course. 

Watch the video to find out more about learning, placements and careers and see what's it's like to study at Plymouth.

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