The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food

Course Number
PSYC 123
About the Course

This course encompasses the study of eating as it affects the health and well-being of every human. Topics include taste preferences, food aversions, the regulation of hunger and satiety, food as comfort and friendship, eating as social ritual, and social norms of blame for food problems. The politics of food discusses issues such as sustainable agriculture, organic farming, genetically modified foods, nutrition policy, and the influence of food and agriculture industries. Also examined are problems such as malnutrition, eating disorders, and the global obesity epidemic; the impact of food advertising aimed at children; poverty and food; and how each individual’s eating is affected by the modern environment.

Course Structure

This Yale College course, taught on campus twice per week for 75 minutes, was recorded for Open Yale Courses in Fall 2008.



This course encompasses the study of eating as it affects the health and well-being of every human. Topics include taste preferences, food aversions, the regulation of hunger and satiety, food as comfort and friendship, eating as social ritual, and social norms of blame for food problems. The politics of food discusses issues such as sustainable agriculture, organic farming, genetically modified foods, nutrition policy, and the influence of food and agriculture industries. Also examined are problems such as malnutrition, eating disorders, and the global obesity epidemic; the impact of food advertising aimed at children; poverty and food; and how each individual’s eating is affected by the modern environment.


Main Texts

Brownell, Kelly D. and Katherine B. Horgen. Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It. New York: McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books, 2004.

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: The Penguin Press, 2008.

Course Packet

Anton, Anthony and Lane Hoss. “Trans Fat Plan Would Be ‘logistical nightmare.’” Seattle Post Intelligencer, 17 July 2007.

Beckman, Mary. “A Matter of Taste: Are You a Supertaster?” Smithsonian (August 2004).

Berman, Richard. “Should Government Ban Trans Fats? Con: Bans are Hysterical - but not Funny (OpEd).” San Francisco Chronicle, 18 October 2006, p. B8.

Bittman, Mark. “Rethinking the Meat Guzzler.” New York Times, 27 January 2008.

Brownell, Kelly D. and David S. Ludwig. “Fighting Obesity and the Food Lobby (OpEd).” Washington Post, 9 June 2002, p. B6.

Brownell, Kelly D. and Derek Yach. “The Battle of the Bulge.” Foreign Policy (November-December 2005), pp. 26-27.

Brownell, Kelly D. and Marion Nestle. “The Sweet and Lowdown on Sugar (OpEd).” New York Times, 23 January 2004, p. A23.

Brownell, Kelly D. and Robert R. Friedman. “We Need to Know What We Ingest (OpEd).” Seattle Post Intelligencer, 14 February 2008.

Brownell, Kelly D. and Walter C. Willett. “Should Government Ban Trans Fats? Pro: Choose to Remove Trans Fats (OpEd).” San Francisco Chronicle, 18 October 2006, p. B8.

Casagrande, Sarah S., Youfa Wang, Cheryl Anderson and Tiffany L. Gary. “Have Americans Increased Their Fruit and Vegetable Intake? The Trends Between 1988 and 2002.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 32 (2007), pp. 257-263.

Council of Better Business Bureaus. “Changing the Landscape of Food and Beverage Advertising: The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in Action: A Progress Report on the First Six Months of Implementation,” (July-December, 2007).

Darmon, Nicole and Adam Drewnowski. “Does Social Class Predict Diet Quality?” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87 (2008), pp. 1107-1117.

Davies, W. Paul. “An Historical Perspective from the Green Revolution to the Gene Revolution.” Nutrition Reviews, 61 (2003), S124-134.

Eaton, Boyd S. “The Ancestral Diet: What Was It and Should It Be a Paradigm for Contemporary Nutrition?” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 65 (2006), pp. 1-6.

Faiola, Anthony. “The New Economics of Hunger.” Washington Post, 27 April 2008, A01.

Falbe, Jennifer L. and Marion Nestle. “The Politics of Government Dietary Advice.” In A Sociology of Food & Nutrition: The Social Appetite, 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 127-146.

Gearhardt, Ashley N., William R. Corbin, and Kelly D. Brownell. “Food and Addiction. Evidence from Emerging Science.” Journal of Addiction Medicine.

Hamm, Michael W. “Linking Sustainable Agriculture and Public Health: Opportunities for Realizing Multiple Goals.” Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition.

Horrigan, Leo, Robert S. Lawrence and Polly Walker. “How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 110 (2002), pp. 445-456.

Institute of Medicine. Executive Summary from Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools: Leading the Way Towards Healthier Youth. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2007, pp. 1-15.

Jenkins, David J.A., Cyril W.C. Kendall, Augustine Marchie and Livia S.A. Augustin. “Too Much Sugar, Too Much Carbohydrate, or Just Too Much?” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79 (2004), pp. 711-712.

Kersh, Rogan and James A. Morone. “Obesity, Courts, and the New Politics of Public Health.” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, 30 (2005), pp. 839-868.

Kher, Unmesh. “Target: Trans Fats – How Foodmakers Are Scrambling to Rid Their Tried-and-True Recipes of an Artery-Clogging Fat.” Time, 24 October 2005.

Kluger, Jeffrey. “The Science of Appetite.” Time, 11 June 2007, pp. 49-61.

Lappe, Frances M. “Hunger Is not a Place. The Nation, 23 January 2006.

Mead, Margaret. “The Changing Significance of Food.” In Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. 11-19.

Meigs, Anna. “Food as a Cultural Construction.” In Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. 95-106.

Mello, Michelle M., David M. Studdert and Troyen A. Brennan. “Obesity - the New Frontier of Public Health Law.” New England Journal of Medicine, 354 (2006), pp. 2601-2610.

National Institute of Mental Health. “Eating Disorders.” Washington, DC., 2007.

Nocera, Joe. “Food Makers and Critics Break Bread.” New York Times, 25 March 2006.

Norum, Kaare R. “Invited Commentary to Yach Editorial: PepsiCo Recruitment Strategy Challenged.” Public Health Nutrition, 11 (2008), pp. 112-113.

Pomeranz, Jennifer L. and Kelly D. Brownell. “Legal and Public Health Considerations Affecting the Success, Reach, and Impact of Menu Labelling Laws.” American Journal of Public Health, 98 (2008), pp. 1578-1583.

Popkin, Barry M. “Global Nutrition Dynamics: The World Is Shifting Rapidly Toward a Diet Linked with Noncommunicable Diseases.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 84 (2006), pp. 289-298.

Raschke, Verena and Bobby Cheema. “Colonization, the New World Order, and the Eradication of Traditional Food Habits in East Africa: Historical Perspective on the Nutrition Transition.” Public Health Nutrition, 11 (2007), pp. 662-674.

Rozin, Paul. “The Meaning of Food in Our Lives: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Eating and Well-Being.” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 37, 2 (2005), S107-112.

Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “Menu Labeling in Chain Restaurants: Opportunities for Public Policy.” (2008).

Sachs, Jeffrey D. “Act Now, Eat Later.” Time, 5 May 2008, p. 44.

Schwartz, Marlene B. “The Influence of a Verbal Prompt on School Lunch Fruit Consumption: A Pilot Study.” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 4 (2007), pp. 1-5.

Shetty, Prakash. “Achieving the Goal of Halving Global Hunger by 2015.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 65 (2006), pp. 7-18.

Silver, Lynn and Mary T. Bassett. “Food Safety for the 21st Century.” JAMA, 300 (2008), pp. 957-959.

Sobal, Jeffrey and Brian Wansink. “Kitchenscapes, Tablescapes, Platescapes, and Foodscapes: Influences of Microscale Built Environments on Food Intake.” Environment and Behavior, 39 (2007), pp. 124-142.

Swinburn, Boyd, Gary Sacks, Tim Lobstein, Neville Rigby, Louise A. Baur, Kelly D. Brownell, Timothy Gill, Seidell Jacob and Shiriki Kumanyika. “The Sydney Principles for Reducing Commercial Promotion of Foods and Beverages to Children.” Public Health Nutrition, 11 (2008), pp. 881-886.

Time Magazine Debate. “Are You Responsible for Your Own Weight?” Time, 7 June 2004, p. 113

Toenniessen, Gary, Akinwumi Adesina and Joseph DeVries. “Building an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1136 (2008), pp. 233-242.

Uauy, Ricardo. “Invited Commentary to Yach Editorial: Do We Believe Derek’s Motives for Taking His New Job at PepsiCo?” Public Health Nutrition, 11 (2008), pp. 111-112.

Vartanian, Lenny R., Marlene B. Schwartz and Kelly D. Brownell. “Effects of Soft Drink Consumption on Nutrition and Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” American Journal of Public Health, 97 (2007), pp. 667-675.

Walker, Polly, Pamela Rhubart-Berg, Shawn McKenzie, Kristin Kelling and Robert S. Lawrence. “Public Health Implications of Meat Production and Consumption.” Public Health Nutrition, 8 (2005), pp. 348-356.

Wardle, Jane and Lucy Cooke. “Genetic and Environmental Determinants of Children’s Food Preferences.” British Journal of Nutrition, 99 (2008), S15-S21.

Weber, Christopher L. and H. Scott Matthews. “Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States.” Environmental Science and Technology, 42 (2008), pp. 3508-3513.

Willett, Walter C. and Meir J. Stampfer. “Rebuilding the Food Pyramid.” Scientific American, 288 (2003), pp. 64-71.

Wilson, G. Terence and Roz Shafran. “Eating Disorders Guidelines from NICE.” Lancet, 365 (2005), pp. 79-81.

Wilson, G. Terence, Carlos M. Grilo and Kelly M. Vitousek. “Psychological Treatment of Eating Disorders.” American Psychologist, 62 (2007), pp. 199-216.

Yach, Derek, David Stuckler and Kelly D. Brownell. “Epidemiologic and Economic Consequences of the Global Epidemics of Obesity and Diabetes.” Nature Medicine, 12 (2006), 62-66.

Yach, Derek. “Invited Editorial: A Personal View: Food Companies and Nutrition for Better Health.” Public Health Nutrition, 11 (2008), pp. 109-111.


1. Concept Sheets. Once each week students are required to turn in a completed Concept Sheet. These sheets pertain to the topics discussed in that week’s reading and lectures and may cover material from either of the two classes during a given week. These will be graded on quality, not length, and are generally 1-2 pages. The purpose is to entice thought, encourage students to take or challenge controversial stands, and foster creativity.

2. Op-Ed. Opinion/Editorial pieces can be a powerful means of communicating ideas, framing key social issues, and proposing change. Central to social change and the social movements that sustain it (one theme of the class) is a philosophy of activism and the willingness and ability to communicate effectively and widely. One of the class requirements is for students to develop an Op/Ed piece and submit a final version to a publication of their choice. The grade will not depend on whether the piece is accepted for publication or where the piece is submitted.

3. Midterm and Final examinations. A midterm exam will be given on October 15 and the final exam on the last day of class, December 3. The material in lectures and the readings will overlap only partially, so to score well on the exams it will be important to attend lectures and do the readings. The final exam will not be cumulative and hence will cover material only from the midterm to the end of the term.

4. Final Project/Paper. Each student will prepare a paper or complete a project of their definition. The deadline is firm; one half grade will be deducted for every day the paper is late. A paper should be 10-12 pages, not including references, tables, or figures. The paper/project may take one of the following forms:

A. Research Proposal. The student identifies an interesting and important research question, undertakes a review of pertinent literature, and describes a study that would address the question. Examples might be at what age does food advertising begin to affect children, would food taxes affect consumption, are genetically modified foods safe, will people overeat “healthier” versions of products like chips and French fries feeling they are lower in calories, and how do public perceptions of the food industry affect public policy?

B. Placing Experience in the Broad Context. Students may choose to volunteer or work in a setting pertinent to the topics of the class, and then write how the local experience relates to broader knowledge on the topic. For instance, a student working in a soup kitchen might interview its directors, then write about choices kitchens must make between feeding more people cheaper (unhealthier) foods and serving healthier foods to fewer individuals, reviewing what has been written on the topic from other settings. A student working in the Yale Sustainable Food Project could integrate that experience with what is known globally. Please discuss how the knowledge you acquire from the broader context might be used to improve local programs. Please obtain permission of the instructor to insure the proposed topic fits with the aim of the assignment.

C. Independent Project. Students may choose to create a project of their own, say a film, a video of children’s food ads documenting themes used to sell food, a presentation that might be used in schools, an analysis of legal cases on a particular topic, etc. Students may work with a partner or as a team, but the amount of work should reflect the number of people involved, and the same grade will be assigned to those participating in a team or group. This option affords students the opportunity to be creative and to pursue work in a medium of interest to them. Please obtain permission from the instructor.


Concept sheets: 15%
Opinion/Editorial pieces: 15%
Midterm examination: 20%
Final examination: 25%
Final paper/project: 25%


Lecture 1 Introduction: What We Eat, Why We Eat and the Key Role of Food in Modern Life
Lecture 2 Food Then, Food Now: Modern Food Conditions and Their Mismatch with Evolution
Lecture 3 Biology, Nutrition and Health I: What We Eat
Lecture 4 Biology, Nutrition and Health II: What Helps Us and Hurts Us
Lecture 5 Biology, Nutrition and Health III: The Psychology of Taste and Addiction
Lecture 6 Culture and the Remarkable Plasticity of Eating (Presentation by Ashley Gearhardt)
Lecture 7 Hunger in the World of Plenty
Lecture 8 Nutrition Transition and Global Food Issues
Lecture 9 From Ancient to Modern Farming: The Green Revolution and the Prospect of Feeding the World
Lecture 10 Sustainability I: The Impact of Modern Agriculture on the Environment and Energy Use
Lecture 11 Sustainability II: The Impact of Modern Agriculture on Biodiversity, Genetic Modification and Animal Welfare
Lecture 12 Public Health vs. Medical Models in Nutrition Change: Saving Lives One or a Million at a Time
Lecture 13 Eating Disorders and Obesity (Guest Lecture by B. Timothy Walsh)
Lecture 14 Perspectives of the Food Industry (Guest Lecture by Derek Yach)
Lecture 15 Economics, Nutrition and Health: Subsidies, Food Deserts and More
Lecture 16 Everyone but Me: The Pervasive Reach and Powerful Influence of Food Marketing on Food Choices
Lecture 17 The Politics of Food I: How Politics Affects National Nutrition Policy (Guest Lecture by Rogan Kersh)
Lecture 18 The Politics of Food II: The Issues, the Fights and Who Controls the Frame
Lecture 19 The Law and Opportunities to Improve Nutrition and Health (Guest Lecture by Stephen Teret)
Lecture 20 Schools and Nutrition: Where Health and Politics Collide (Guest Lecture by Marlene B. Schwartz)
Lecture 21 The Morphing of the Modern Diet (Guest Lecture by Brian Wansink)
Lecture 22 Sustainability and Health Food Access (Guest Lecture by Melina Shannon-DiPietro and Jennifer McTiernan)
Lecture 23 Success Stories, Innovation and Change from the Grass Roots


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Course Books and Other Related Titles

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