My entry into nutrition was when I worked for a year in a squatter area in old Delhi, India, in the mid-1960s. I became interested in health and welfare and learned Hindi during this time. When I returned to the University of Wisconsin I decided to focus on the economics of nutrition for my thesis. I then worked at the US government’s new poverty agency, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and helped to write the Citizens Crusade Against Hunger report.
I then became a political activist organising welfare mothers and unions, and was involved in civil rights and the anti-war struggle. My Marxist and Maoist perspective was of the need to organise communities at the grassroots to achieve true social change. I then returned to academic work and obtained my PhD from Cornell University. My interests were – and remain – nutrition, the poor, and the interaction of socio-economic and individual factors.
I began my academic career with a position in Asia with the Rockefeller Foundation. After spending three years in Southeast Asia I returned to the US and took a job at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This institution has allowed me to build my research and training programme over time and I have remained happily ensconced there for over 30 years.
My economics and activist backgrounds have given me a special perspective on nutrition. Concerns such as how low income families live and earn their living led me to focus on women’s work as it affects infant and child nutrition, and to other early work on poverty in the US and around the world. Because of having intense experiences in Asia and the US, I have always felt comfortable studying both worlds.
Midway through my career I began to feel that that to focus on small intense studies was to miss the major global socio-economic and demographic transitions. This prompted me to develop the China Health and Nutrition Survey, which has continued over almost a 20-year period now. At this time I also spent an intense period of study and writing, thinking about the major global and historical transitions in food, nutrition, physical activity and body composition. I then began to develop my theory of the nutrition transition.
The rest is history! My China work has expanded to many countries, including Russia, and with Carlos Monteiro in Brazil and more recently Mexico with Juan Rivera and others. My main interest is the global nutrition transition – in particular, the rapid shift to a stage of nutrition-related degenerative diseases with all the dynamic shifts in diet, activity, and obesity. My global research includes longitudinal studies I direct in China, Russia, and the Philippines, and related work in Brazil and other countries.