You are what you ate
Historians and scientists from the University are finding inventive ways to educate people about healthy eating via a series of fun, public events.
You are what you ate: food lessons from the past is a three-year research project funded by a Society Award from the Wellcome Trust. It will explore how food affected our ancestors, and discover how we can learn from the past to improve our health and engage with 21st century challenges such as obesity.
Dr Iona McCleery (School of History) is leading the project. She says: “Although our eating habits are very different to those of our medieval ancestors, the problems we face – for example nutritional disease, alcoholism and obesity – are nothing new. Through historical food, we can transform public perceptions of healthy eating and really get people thinking about their diet.”
Working with schools and through activities such as exhibitions, festival attendance, cooking demonstrations and workshops, the project will explore three main themes. Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice examines the relationships between taste, health, appearance, social status, cultural identity and cost, and The Dark Side of Eating focuses on nutritional disease, alcoholism and obesity as well as lifestyle choices, such as vegetarianism and fasting. Finally, Food for all Seasons will explore food quality, and consider how food was processed, preserved and transported in a time before refrigeration, and how this differs from our own, non-seasonal lifestyle.
“Through food festival stalls and cooking demonstrations we’ll reach people who don’t usually go into museums to encourage them to think about how the past affects their own eating habits”, explains Dr McCleery. The first of these events took place at Pontefract Castle in July, when people were invited to taste portions of medieval food cooked by food historian Caroline Yeldham, and visitors learnt about nutrition and diets then and now.
Dr McCleery is collaborating with colleagues across the University – Professor Janet Cade from the Leeds Institute of Genetics, Health and Theraputics (LIGHT) and Professor Gary Williamson from the School of Food Science and Nutrition – and other project partners from the University of Bradford and Wakefield Council.
In January, Dr McCleery and her colleagues will begin visiting schools in the Wakefield region and hope to take their message to around 6,000 schoolchildren in total.
Image caption: (top row l-r) Iona McCleery, Vicky Shearman, Jo Buckberry, Joanna Phillips (History graduate 2010); (bottom row l-r) Caroline Yeldham, Maya Harrison, Maria Cannon (Medieval History, MA student).