Project – Eating

Household water storage in Mexico City

Dam maintenance in Mexico City

Cooking tomatillos and peppers in Mexico City

Eating at a birthday party in Mexico City

ELEMENT biological sample storage

ELEMENT participant blood draw for research

Analyzing field notes from household visits

Salsa verde heating in lead glazed ceramic pot, August 2017

Although the central focus of the ELEMENT study has been toxicant exposure, understanding participants’ diets has been core to ELEMENT’s investigation since its inception. Diet can not only be a direct source of toxicants but can also affect the body’s uptake of toxicants (e.g., calcium affects the uptake of lead). Furthermore, diet is connected to cardiometabolic  outcomes such as obesity, which is especially relevant in the context of Mexico’s designation by the WHO in 2013 as the world’s fattest industrial nation. ELEMENT has historically gathered, and continues to gather, diet-related data through food frequency questionnaires and anthropometric measures like body fat indices. The addition of Mexican Exposures ethnography now allows for ethnographic observation of eating patterns within ELEMENT households.

Roberts spent much of her time in the field engaged with ELEMENT participants in food-related activities such as shopping, meal preparation, and eating. She observed that, in a precarious world, sharing cheap sugary and fatty foods (increasingly available through globalization) is central to creating and maintaining the social density necessary for survival. Meanwhile, the Mexican public health apparatus exhorts working-class people to make “better food decisions” by halting their consumption of these so-called “discretionary” foods. In its documentation of everyday life in working-class Mexico City, Roberts’s qualitative data provides insight into how the globalized transformation in food landscapes transforms eating and toxicant exposure.

Recently, ELEMENT postdoc Erica Jansen began working with Hannah Marcovitch, an anthropology undergraduate in the Mexican Exposures data analysis lab, to bring together Mexican Exposures ethnographic data and ELEMENT epidemiological data in order to better understand eating among ELEMENT participants in Mexico City. In particular, Jansen and Marcovitch plan to evaluate sociodemographic determinants of eating patterns within the ELEMENT population using conventional nutritional epidemiological methods to analyze food frequency questionnaires (FFQs). They will then interpret and compare the findings to the bioethnographic data pertaining to diet. They hope to illustrate the value of using qualitative dietary data to understand and complement questionnaire-based dietary findings.