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DGHI Faculty Harris Solomon Specializes in Obesity Research in India

August 23, 2011

It’s not only Michelle Obama and other Americans who are sounding the alarm about obesity. The problem is also growing in places such as India, and new Duke faculty member Harris Solomon seeks to understand why.

The medical anthropologist spent the past several years watching snack food sellers in Mumbai, hanging out with Indian mothers as they cook for their families and interviewing Indian companies that have begun using healthier ingredients to promote their foods to consumers worried about their waistlines.

“Obesity is so interesting to me, since food is morally charged,” says Solomon, who argues that consumerism and modernization alone cannot explain India’s problems with obesity and related illnesses such as diabetes. “Some people have blamed over-indulgent parents or the growing number of people with sedentary jobs, but the issue is more complicated. We need to ask who puts food in circulation. How is it priced? Who has access? You can’t just frame obesity in terms of personal indulgence or a society becoming wealthier.”

Solomon joins Duke as an assistant professor in both the cultural anthropology department and the global health institute. “To be in such an interdisciplinary environment with a joint appointment was especially appealing,” he says, describing Duke’s approach as “forward thinking.”

He is teaching one undergraduate medical anthropology course in the fall and another on anthropology and global health in the spring. Even before his classes started, however, he was “astounded” by the number of Duke students who sent him messages about their global health experiences with DukeEngage and other programs.

In his own research, Solomon focused recently on street vendors who sell a Mumbai specialty called vada pav, a spicy snack that looks like an Indian hamburger. The “desi burger,” as some describe it, is important not only economically and nutritionally, but also for the insights it offers about how people think about food and politics.

Much like India’s growing number of neighborhood diet clinics or its advertisements featuring women who have become trimmer in recent years, a humble snack food can illustrate why “biomedicine is not the only way to talk about health and illness,” according to Solomon, who says “public health debates offer a lens into Indian society.”

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