“It’s like the Freakonomics of food,” says Sophie Egan, director of programs and culinary nutrition for the Strategic Initiatives Group at the Culinary Institute of America. She's describing her book, Devoured: How What We Eat Defines Who We Are, published last year by William Morrow and out in paperback this summer.
“It holds a mirror up to our daily eating habits and reveals why the elements driving them are more interesting then they appear at first glance. It really explains why we eat what, and how we eat in the United States.”
This idea captured Sophie Egan’s attention as she was working toward her master’s degree in public health and social behavior.
“People talk about the way that your environment shapes your individual habits,” she says. “I felt like what was missing from the conversation was recognition of the way the social and cultural environments cue our eating habits, in often subconscious ways.”
The result is a fascinating look at a wide variety of food phenomena, including the sad desk lunch, stunt foods, the rise of snacks in place of meals, and how many foods we buy because they are “free” of something. This book pulls back the curtains on marketing and other social pressures that drive our decision-making about food. It gives readers an opportunity to become more conscious about food choices.
“The goal that I have with this book is to empower people — to put them in the driver's seat of their own daily food choices, by understanding the marketing elements that are often taking advantage of a deeply ingrained social norm — something that maybe they've been taught since they were in school, that is a part of their family household,” says Egan.
One of the first steps Egan recommends is to take back the lunch break. Whether that’s forming a lunch bunch with a group of colleagues, packing something from home, or simply taking a break to eat away from your desk (or other place of work), small steps can make a huge difference in terms of mental and physical health. “If more and more people start to claim just that one small thing in their weekday, where they actually monotask on food, that would be a powerful shift in our culture,” says Egan.
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No matter your relationship to food, it’s likely that you’ll discover many fascinating tidbits within the pages of Devoured. It just might change the way you shop, order in a restaurant, or approach your own kitchen.
But beyond the individual, this book is also a call to notice and celebrate what we have in common.
“It's been interesting because I was driven by this question of what unites us as eaters in America, and it was so fascinating that my book came out in an election year because understanding what unites us as anything in America is perhaps more important than it's ever been,” says Egan.
“Food is such a powerful reflection of deeper values that we hold as a society, and really my drive in this book was to unearth those values and illustrate the ways that they are shaping our eating habits for better and for worse.”