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SNAPSHOT: An Anthropologist Measures Health

How do you measure health? With blood pressure data and BMIs? By the absence of disease? Do emotions count? How about personal health versus community health?

Professor Kristina Baines of Guttman Community College is a cultural anthropologist. While studying indigenous people in Belize and immigrants in New York, Baines came up with a framework for health that examines both “social practice and the physical body.” She calls it “embodied ecological heritage” (EEH).

A cornfield

EEH “takes into account how the body changes” while interacting with the environment in traditional, everyday ways — like growing corn through communal subsistence farming and preparing handmade corn tortillas for daily consumption. As dietary staples, handmade tortillas are healthier than processed food. But the physical and social activities required to make them support health, too, both for individuals and the community.

Writing about EEH in the journal Medicine Anthropology Theory, Baines says she’s often asked whether the people she studies are “actually healthier.” To “provide the evidence that seems to be desired,” she includes data like blood pressure and BMI. But biometrics don’t measure external factors like social and environmental well-being. The Maya, for example, consider themselves healthy when illness doesn’t impair their “ability to work” and contribute to the community.

In New York, Baines studied Garifuna immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America. Their traditions include picking wild plants in local parks for cooking. “They assured me that doing so kept them healthy,” Baines said. They also collaborate on a traditional soup that requires hand-grated coconut. These traditional foods are not just healthier than processed food. They also require physical activity, social interaction and an overall slowing down.

But “are they actually healthier?” Baines asks “The answer is ‘yes.’”