Eugenicists Shaped the Pathologized Way Many Americans Think About Nutrition Today

Designed by Alyssa Gray

Mixing food with morality has always been—and continues to be—a recipe for disaster.

If you were to flip through the March 1911 issue of Good Health magazine, you would have found a regular recipe column by Lenna Frances Cooper, one of the first American registered dietitians. In her contribution to this issue, entitled "The Dinner Pail," Cooper offers practical advice for packing lunch for others, along with a few vegetarian recipes for filling said dinner pail. There is an egg and olive sandwich, stuffed figs, potato and celery salad, and more, all looking "nourishing and digestible as well as palatable and attractive," as she says the contents of a dinner pail should be.

Flip a few pages and you'd come across a column titled "Euthenics and Eugenics.” This recurring section of the magazine—published by John Harvey Kellogg, MD, medical director and superintendent of Seventh-day Adventist health institution, the Battle Creek Sanitarium—was devoted to promoting pillars of eugenics. As defined by the National Human Genome Research Institute, eugenics refers to the “scientifically inaccurate theory that humans can be improved through selective breeding of populations…linked to historical and present-day forms of discrimination, racism, ableism and colonialism.” 

Experts In This Article
  • Dalina Soto, MA, RD, LDN, anti-diet dietitian based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Danielle Dreilinger, Danielle Dreilinger is an American South storytelling reporter for Gannett/USA Today Network and the author of The Secret History of Home Economics.
  • Helen Zoe Veit, Helen Zoe Veit is an associate professor of history at Michigan State University and the author of Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century.
  • Kate Gardner Burt, PhD, RD, Kate Gardner Burt, PhD, RD is an assistant professor at Lehman College and a registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist.
  • Shaun Chavis, Shaun Chavis is a food journalist and former cookbook editor.

Good Health’s feature story in this issue looks into whether hereditary factors or environmental factors are to blame for societal problems like disease, crime, and poverty. It ultimately concludes that "the real betterment of the human race is in better matings." 

For the modern reader, these two topic focuses that occur throughout the magazine present a jarring juxtaposition: Peach shortcake and "The Need of Reform in Teaching Primitive Races” sharing a table of contents? But for a number of folks living in the Progressive Era, roughly the 1890s to the 1920s, eugenics was an accepted, influential, and ingrained belief—one that indeed touched overarching life philosophies and weekly menus alike.

In addition to breakfast cereal (which he’s credited with inventing alongside his brother, William), Dr. Kellogg was an ardent believer in eugenics. During the early 20th century, he spread the gospel through his work at the Battle Creek Sanitarium and Good Health magazine; he even hosted the 1914 National Conference on Race Betterment. One of the founders of home economics, Annie Dewey, was at the conference to introduce the concept of euthenics, which framed individual control over one's environment as both a duty and a path to health and happiness—a "sister science" to eugenics that would help "carry the race toward perfection." 

Progressive reformers believed that food was fuel for building strong bodies and minds. Taking pleasure in eating, meanwhile, implied wrongful intentions and was not encouraged. At this time, the U.S. was also cementing its "melting pot" status, with immigration rates skyrocketing. Yet, many American nutrition experts expressed wariness around the foreign dishes gaining popularity—along with dishes popular among Black Americans—emphasizing that the healthiest diet was built around ingredients and cooking methods familiar to white, native-born Americans.

The science of modern nutrition was born deeply entwined with the ersatz science of eugenics, a tangle that mixed up morality with food choices, blending "eating white" with "eating right." And as much as today’s nutrition community would like to distance ourselves from the harmful teachings and practices of this time period, many of the ideas about dietary choices and health born during this time are still alive and well. Dig a little deeper, and you'll understand why Cooper's peach shortcake recipe is sitting comfortably alongside calls for "race betterment."

In the Progressive Era, what was right simply equaled what was white 

The Progressive Era was marked by a zeal for “positive social change.” Many of those changes targeted systems—for example, passing laws that restricted child labor—but individual self-improvement was also a fascination of the time. Research scientists and physicians (let alone consumers) were just beginning to understand what calories and vitamins were, and the popularity of these novel concepts contributed to the birth of the dietitian. 

It makes sense why many early (white American) “nutrition experts” like Cooper gained a following as the eugenics movement grew, and vice versa—the themes of exclusion and restriction so naturally emulsified. From there came the concept of the "ideal diet," one which provided the necessary amount of calories and nutrients through plain, bland meals made up of recognizable ingredients, a diet that, by design, had nothing in common with the heavily seasoned, mixed stews, pastas, stir-fries, sauces, and other foods that were staples in the diets of many immigrants and Black people. 

For many eugenicists, a better society meant a whiter, wealthier society, absent of people with disabilities. At its most abhorrent, they believed Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), immigrants, people living in poverty, and those with disabilities should not reproduce; and that practices like forced sterilization were an appropriate means to achieve that goal. Some eugenicists were more interested in exploring how to optimize life (for the white, native-born people in the room, that is).

"How can we make people better? How can we improve them mentally? How can we make them grow taller? How can we make them stronger? How can we make them live longer? How can we make them happier and healthier in a day to day sense? These were questions that most people cared even more about than the sort of racist, mechanical reproduction side of long-term racial change," Helen Zoe Veit, associate professor of history at Michigan State University and author of Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century, says about these Progressive Era eugenicists. "So a lot of the questions about day-to-day health, happiness, fitness, growth, and development had plenty to do with food, and this was in some ways a revelation of the early twentieth century, the idea of improving health and increasing longevity through your diet."

Eating habits of the healthy, protestant, and pure 

Many leading health experts (including Dr. Kellogg) during the Progressive Era saw the culinary habits and ingredients prized by any immigrant or minority group as “wrong.” Doctors and home economists at the time preached that “mixed” dishes—like pasta or stew, where various food groups get tossed and served together—were “harder to digest,” especially for white people, and that the most healthful choice was a meal of separate, simple, lightly-seasoned foods. Think: a piece of bland baked meat, boiled potatoes, and bread every night for supper—no spice, no sauce, no pleasure. (Little did they know that this advice would be so deeply entrenched in white culinary culture that a century later, there would be viral memes about unseasoned "white people food" and even a trend in China making fun of sad "white people meals.")

Her tone is really friendly as she falsely perpetuates this idea that Eurocentric food is more healthy than the food that is indigenous to this continent.

Those who did not know how to prepare such food could learn in cookbooks and housekeeping manuals that were widely published at the time, which had names like The New Cookery (by Cooper herself, naturally), Foods of the Foreign Born in Relation to Health, and Americanization Through Homemaking. "These are not just cookbooks, but tools of racism, xenophobia, and cultural hegemony," says food journalist and former cookbook editor Shaun Chavis. For evidence, just consider how Americanization Through Homemaking begins its chapter on food: "Mexican families are mal-nourished not so much from a lack of food as from not having the right varieties of foods." Noted. 

"These are not just cookbooks, but tools of racism, xenophobia, and cultural hegemony."

Shaun Chavis, food journalist and former cookbook editor

Chavis points out the irony in these books villainizing traditional Mexican ingredients like tomatoes, peppers, and spices for being unhealthy: "[Bertha Woods, author of Foods of the Foreign Born in Relation to Health] encourages dietitians to persuade Mexicans to eat more cereals, baked or broiled fish, meat and vegetables, and to gradually reduce the amount of tomato or pepper until it becomes a bland dish. Her tone is really friendly as she falsely perpetuates this idea that Eurocentric food is more healthy than the food that is indigenous to this continent. Now we now know through actual science that these culinary habits are generally more nutritious than [solely eating] bland foods," says Chavis.

The legacy of Lenna Frances Cooper lives on 

Though the advice was published over a century ago, it sounds very familiar to registered dietitian Dalina Soto, RD, founder of Your Latina Nutritionist and author of the forthcoming book The Latina Anti-Diet. She still sees the harmful effects of these deeply entrenched xenophobic messages around food choices in her work with Latine clients. "Whenever I'm working with my clients, the foods they grew up eating are always considered ‘cheating’," Soto says. "There is this idea of: I'm being ‘good’ all day when I'm eating 'healthy foods,' and when I want to let loose and cheat on my diet, then I can have those cultural foods." 

As a Dominican American, Soto understands all too well how such rhetoric can take hold in a person, though. Her nutrition schooling had originally swayed her to try and change her family's food choices; she had told her mother that they needed to switch from eating white rice to brown rice, and she also wondered if they should eat fewer plantains. But the more she learned about nutrition science, the more Soto came to appreciate how deeply nutritious Dominican ingredients and dishes are. That reality still hasn’t reached so many folks. 

"People see a dish that their mom made or their grandma made, and it's automatically ‘unhealthy’ because she made it—plus she made it the way that she learned to make it in her country. That's doubly ‘bad,’” Soto says of her clients. “But they're not seeing all the nutrition that's in it, because nobody is taught that. Not even us [dietitians]."

According to Veit, prior to the Progressive Era, meal-planning and dietary choices were based on other factors like cultural norms, accessibility of ingredients, and personal preferences, and did not require outside expertise. The discovery of calories and vitamins, and a better understanding of the functional roles of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in the diet gave the Progressives something to count and quantify. 

"People see a dish that their mom made or their grandma made, and it's automatically ‘unhealthy’ because she made it—plus she made it the way that she learned to make it in her country. That's doubly ‘bad'."

Dalina Soto, RD, registered dietitian and founder of Your Latina Nutritionist

The icing on the proverbial cake for Dr. Kellogg and the eugenics agenda? Because dietary information wasn't readily available to all, a new class of nutrition experts was needed to step in to tell ordinary people the "right" way to eat.

Enter Cooper: She was, in many ways, the original “wellness influencer.” Dr. Kellogg gave her a regular nutrition advice platform in Good Health magazine, and made her chief dietitian of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and the director and dean of the Battle Creek Sanitarium School of Home Economics. She taught nearly 500 dietitians in her tenure at the Sanitarium, and in 1918 she was appointed first supervising dietitian for the U.S. Army. Cooper went on to work for the U.S. Surgeon General, launch the Department of Dietetics at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and pen Nutrition in Health and Disease, a dietetic and nursing program textbook that was referenced, globally, for decades that followed.

"Lenna Francis Cooper was driven by a desire to improve people's health, and driven by a desire to improve society," says Danielle Dreilinger, American South storytelling reporter for USA Today and author of The Secret History of Home Economics. "She had this classic home-economist optimism that we could make the world so much better, and we can make people's lives so much better and so much healthier if they're just eating the right things."

In 1917, Cooper co-founded the American Dietetic Association, now known as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Since its inception, the organization has been openly proud of its ties to the early dietitian, despite her close personal and professional relationship with eugenicists. That said, Dreilinger spent a lot of time researching Cooper for her book, and never found a record of her personal feelings about eugenics. Her recipe column in Good Health, though, is a statement of its own, appearing in every issue alongside arguments for race betterment. 

The silent complicity of Cooper’s work says something, as does the silence from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on the topic. And while the organization changed the name of the award previously called the Lenna Frances Cooper Memorial Lecture Award to the Distinguished Lecture Award in 2021, it did not release a public statement on the reason for the change, or address the co-founder's complicated legacy. 

"There is nothing individually shameful for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics," says Dreilinger. "Organizations [at that time] had people in them, and had people leading them sometimes who were known to have racist and xenophobic views." It is what the organization's leadership chooses to do now that really matters, she continues: "They're doing better work if they just face up to it, talk about it, and try to elevate and uncover people of color who were doing great work at the time, who have gotten forgotten from the histories."

Maybe it’s time for a Flemmie Pansy Kittrell Memorial Award instead. (Dr. Kittrell was the first African American woman to receive a PhD in nutrition and one of the most influential historical advocates for nutrition, health, and racial equity. Her work on child development and low-income, underrepresented families living in small towns transformed the field of home economics.)

Racist undertones of today’s mainstream “wellness movement”

Unfortunately, not so much has changed since the early 20th century with regard to mainstream society’s endless pursuit of the “ideal diet.” When we create a model (or a plate) for "eating right” that centers western eating habits, those whose cultural preferences don't fit in that box are… "eating wrong"? You’d think we’d know by now that mixing morality into our food makes a bad dish. 

When food is stripped of its cultural context, reduced to a set of numbers, and seen as a means to an end—whether that end is self-improvement or "race betterment"—we lose the simple joy of eating for pleasure, without shame or guilt.

Today, the Mediterranean diet is considered the gold standard among many nutrition experts and consumers. And though it is not identical to the bland recipes Cooper featured in Good Health, it nonetheless promotes a false hierarchy of “right and wrong” eating that harkens back to the Progressive Era. "The general public is ultimately receiving the same message, decade after decade: [Western] foods are the solution. Sometimes they’re the problem, but more often, they’re the solution," says Kate Gardner Burt, PhD, RD, assistant professor at Lehman College, registered dietitian, and culinary nutritionist who’s heavily researched the Mediterranean diet through the lens of critical race theory.

Following the Mediterranean diet is probably a healthy way to eat. But is it a uniquely healthy way to eat? Is it the best way to eat? No, says Burt. She points out that other cultural dietary patterns, such as the Okinawan diet or traditional diets from various regions in Africa, also have research to support their healthfulness, but nowhere near as much as the Mediterranean diet. "It's been able to just kind of slide under the radar, and move forward as better than every other," Burt says.

When food is stripped of its cultural context, reduced to a set of numbers, and eaten as a means to an end—whether that end is self-improvement or "race betterment"—we lose the simple joy of eating for pleasure, without shame or guilt

"For Americans, the idea of eating for pleasure [can] sound like giving in to hedonism," says Veit. "One thing that nutrition science did in the early 20th century is tell people: Don't trust yourself. Don't assume that you know what you're doing. How could you know what you’re doing when you didn't even know about vitamins? You don't even know how many calories your meal contains. You have to look to experts to know what to eat.

That lack of trust in our own instincts is a legacy of early nutrition science, Veit says—and of the time period in which it emerged. Maybe it’s time to turn our backs on that legacy, and learn to trust ourselves again. 

Some ideas to get started with helping to build a more diverse future for nutrition? Support Diversify Dietetics, which is a community for students, professionals, and educators dedicated to increasing ethnic and racial diversity in the nutrition and dietetics profession. You can also learn more about the history of Black dietitians via the National Organization of Blacks in Dietetics and Nutrition. And finally, follow nutrition and health professionals of color who are working to dismantle racism in wellness. Only by first unlearning will all members of society be able to work toward fully understanding the inclusive reality of what it means to nourish oneself—body and mind.


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