A Practice Theory Approach to Inequalities in Healthy Eating

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Abstract

This thesis builds up an empirically grounded argument that healthy eating is better understood as a social practice than an individual choice, and that this shift has important implications for how we understand and address socially striated differences in eating different types of food.

While knowledge that vegetables are healthy is widespread, this hasn’t stopped their consumption decreasing - especially among poorer demographics. Rather than being a product of a knowledge deficit, the persistence of unhealthy eating demonstrates a
knowledge-action gap, where ideas of what healthy eating is fail to become part of what we regularly do. From a practice perspective, the expectation that abstract knowledge will translate into action fundamentally misconstrues the ‘power of our minds’ to dictate our
actions. Using a practice-based approach I argue that our capacities for voluntary control are much more limited, with the real power over what we eat lying with a vast network of
underlying non-cognitive elements, interconnected daily practices and political economic forces which together determine the field of possibility. The space for agency is created through practices, which determine what is easy or hard, possible or not. If the constituents of eating practices are not allied with healthy eating even the best intentions will flounder.

Based on data from a case study of 25 mothers in two different areas of Bristol, this thesis sets out how the non-cognitive elements, other practices of our lives and political economic
influences tend increasingly to align with ultra-processed foods across four component practices of eating: food preparation, eating occasions, food provisioning and taste judgements. Additionally, although the histories and contexts in which practices evolve are
unique for every person, it argues that lives lived in greater deprivation skew these involuntary aspects of practice especially strongly in favour of greater incorporation of ultraprocessed foods, augmenting an existing inequity.

This research develops methodological innovations to face the epistemological challenge of accessing practices and draws out five aims for practice-based interventions capable of closing the healthy eating gap: create conditions in which healthy eating innovations can be repeated into automaticity; build on existing eating habits; change the relative availability of minimally and ultra-processed foods; take on some of the risk of developing healthier practices; and intervene where habits are or can be disrupted. Understanding inequalities in healthy eating as practices undermines rational individualist ideologies and their potential
for closing the healthy eating gap. This particularly true for education-based interventions which serve to justify blaming those who are most disadvantaged for the inequalities in preventable ill-health which tax their wellbeing and take years off their lives.
Date of Award2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University
SupervisorAdrian Evans (Supervisor)

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