"Eating for Health": Quantifying Irish Diets in the 1970s

Nina Holmes's picture
Author: Nina Holmes, PhD (Design History, Kingston University London)
H-Nutrition Series: What Should I Eat? Why?
Commissioning Editors: Kristen Ann Ehrenberger and Lisa Haushofe

The Eating for Health kitchen chart [i] was issued by the Health Education Bureau (HEB) under the Irish government’s Department of Health in 1978 in an attempt to improve the dietary habits of Irish people. The full-color A3 size chart was printed on high quality glossy paper, likely so that it was moisture and stain resistant for daily use in the home kitchen. Divided into distinct panels framed by scalloped edges, the chart featured one large frame in green and yellow with three smaller frames inset in blue, pink, and orange. These frames contained precise calorie information, serving sizes, and categorized food groups.  Illustrated green leaves featured on either side of the words "kitchen chart," contrasting the rationalized view of food in the frames with organic, "natural" imagery. By doing so, the chart offered a quantifiable approach to nutrition whilst also using visual maneuvers which referenced "nature" as an ideal of health. 

Despite its bright coloring, the chart was predominantly text-based, demonstrative of food as something to be analyzed as opposed to consumed.[ii] Numerical information dominates the chart, along with highly specific guidelines about calorie intake and weight. Under the "Balancing Your Diet" section, calories are explained and food types are categorized into groups like "Proteins," "Carbohydrates," and "Fats." Such classifications of different types of foods introduced more specialized nutritional knowledge to the kitchens and everyday food practices of Irish home cooks. A relatively new approach within Irish government material at the time, this type of distinct measurement of food and bodily processes engendered individual responsibility around food and body type.[iii]

Like many other Western countries in the post-war period, interest in lifestyle-related health matters came to the fore in Ireland in the 1970s. Convenience and pre-packaged food, including tinned fruit and vegetables, were becoming more commonly consumed in Ireland (particularly amongst urban populations). This trend was reflected in the Eating for Health kitchen chart by the inclusion of foods such as tinned peas, tinned fruit and fruit salad, tinned salmon, steak and kidney pie, and confectionary such as ice-cream. Availability of a wider variety of foods many of which were imported was also a relatively recent factor in the Irish diet, symptomatic of international social and cultural influences manifesting in 1970s Ireland. The kitchen chart was evidence of these developments as well; it featured ten different types of cheese, including French Gruyere and Camembert, and Italian parmesan.

The health effects of these changes to the Irish population’s patterns of consumption came to the attention of the Irish government in the 1970s.[iv] Nutrition, along with physical exercise, smoking, and alcohol consumption, became a key emphasis of the Irish government’s efforts to improve the health of its population in the late twentieth century. This was paralleled by a shift in the remit of healthcare – from curative to preventative, and subsequently to health improvement. This shift was most notable in the proliferation of health education material[v] such as pamphlets and posters following the formation of the Health Education Bureau (HEB) in 1975.[vi] The material distributed the importance of health improvement through management of diet and physical regimen by way of State interventions into everyday health practices and enactments of self-regulation by individuals.[vii]

In an era in which advertising had become more savvy and modes of dissemination allowed for greater consumption of media in the Western world, visual methods were central to the communication of the "healthy lifestyle" message in Ireland. Particular foods were increasingly marketed as "health foods" in commercial advertising, and health education ephemera produced by government bodies proliferated. This increase in the production of health material and the widening parameters of design influence followed similar trends throughout Europe and America in the late twentieth century.[viii]

Within health advertisements and educational material, the notion of "nature" was often used to represent bodily health in Western society, especially to highlight the pursuit of health through preventative and "mild" measures.[ix] Representations of healthy bodies and healthy foods were frequently aligned with images of nature, growth, and the outdoors. The kitchen chart was no exception. The title "Eating for Health" was rendered in a large outlined typeface, likely hand-lettered, with exaggerated serifs, particularly on the "g" and lower-case "h." Together, these representations evoked notions of growth and vegetation, as well as of an organic and familial rather than a standardized and industrial guide to good nutrition. In a continuation of the visual suggestion of nature, the lettering had a mottled effect resembling the skin of an orange. Like in other pamphlets, the portrayal of nature within the kitchen chart was idealized, an ideal which harnessed to endorse particular diets and, by extension, particular lifestyles.[x] By illustrating and promoting nature in this manner, the dietary advice of the kitchen chart was positioned within a moral framework of food culture. The visual and textual motif of the "natural" became synonymous with that which is "good." Together with the scientized language of its content, the kitchen chart’s nature motif endorsed the notion of personal responsibility for health.[xi]

The Eating for Health Kitchen Chart specified what individuals should eat and why they should eat it by synthesizing detailed information about calories and food types with allusions to the natural world. The perceived authority and certainty of scientific strategies such as quantification and categorization of food reinforced presented norms, encouraging them to be internalized by individuals and performed as bodily regimens (or, what Michel Foucault termed the “technologies of the self”).[xii] The combined effect of these visual and rhetorical methods was a pervasive aspiration to an improvement of the body, and consequentially, the self. Anchoring quantified nutritional data to the appeal of nature helped to communicate parameters for health "norms" and to promote prescribed practices to achieve them. The principles set out in the chart were contextualized within a wider set of aspirational health improvement measures administered by the Health Education Bureau in the late 1970s, signifying the status of health promotion ephemera as a bio-political apparatus.[xiii]


[i] Health Education Bureau, c. 1978, Dublin: Health Education Bureau. Location: National Library of Ireland, Ir 610 p17.

[ii] Jane Hand has described an "informational turn" in food consumerism in the 1970s, engendering "a shift from consumers eating foods to consumers reading foods." Jane Hand, Eating as Treating: Food Choice, Public Health and Disease Prevention in Post-War Britain, 2017, Conference paper, 7/04/17, School of English and History, Ulster University, Belfast.

[iii] According to Nina Mackert, the association of "fatness with self-indulgence and failure" was mobilized by calorie counting as a tool of quantification in the twentieth century. This type of measurement amounted to a climate of culpability; "When the calorie permitted a proper accounting of one’s diet and people were and remained fat, it seemed that they themselves were to blame." Nina Mackert, "What Calories Do," In: Remedia, 1 November 2017, https:remedianetwork.net/2017/11/01/what-calories-do/ [accessed 17/07/2018].

[iv] With economic growth in Ireland in the mid to late 1970s came availability of greater disposable income for goods such as alcohol and tobacco, along with a preference for more convenient, high-calorie foods. Increased spending brought about an alignment of Irish lifestyles with those of more prosperous international Western countries, and also likely exacerbated the effects of chronic illnesses related to lifestyle habits. Diarmaid Ferriter, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s, 2012, London: Profile Books, 597-598; Mary McSweeney and Professor John Kevany, Nutritional Beliefs and Practices in Ireland, 1981, Dublin: Health Education Bureau.

[v] Some of which included The Better Health Pack (Health Education Bureau, c.1978, National Library of Ireland, Ir 610 p17), Be Active Be Alive (Health Education Bureau, c.1978, National Library of Ireland, Ir 610 p17), Physical Education (Health Education Bureau, c.1978, National Library of Ireland, Ir 610 p17), and Your Good Health lecture series (Health Education Bureau, 1979, National Library of Ireland, Ir 610 p17).

[vi] Implementation of preventative policies in combating ill-health caused by practices of consumption in the 1970s was indicative of the increasingly international focus of Irish social policy and culture, demonstrated most markedly by Ireland's membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. EEC guidelines required that member states initiate measures to promot health at a national level, and health improvement as government policy was more commonly established within medical discourses in Europe. Health Education Bureau, 1987, Promiting Health Through Public Policy, p. xi, available at http://www.lenus.ie/hse/bitstream/10147/46403/1/1328.pdf [accessed 12/05/2016].

[vii] The promotion of lifestyle norms (including dietary norms), and hte reception and internalization of these values and norms by the public can be considered along the lines of the Foucauldian model of the "self-regulating subject"; "There are two meanings of hte word subject: subject to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to." Michel Foucault, 1983, (2nd edition), "The Subject and Power," In: Dreyfus, H., and Rainbow, P., Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 212. See also: Michel Foucault, 1990 (6th edition), The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1, England: Penguin; and Michel Foucault, 1994, Power, Bath: The Bath Press.

[viii] William H. Helfand, “'Some One Sole Unique Advertisement': Public Health Posters in the Twentieth Century," In: Serlin, D. (ed), Imagining Illness: Public Health and Visual Culture, 2010, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 126-142.

[ix] Cecil Helman, Culture, Health and Illness, 1990 (2nd edition), Oxford: Butterworth-Heineman Ltd, 34.

[x] This can be aligned with Judith Williamson’s concept of "The Natural" as a "socially determined" view of nature which is often mobilized to communicate cultural determinants of "good" and functions as "the justification for whatever society approves and desires." Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, 1994 (10th edition), London: Marion Boyars, 123.

[xi] Charlotte Biltekoff has similarly argued that historically, nutritional "ideals" are imbued with cultural meanings and social signifiers which "communicate […] widely shared ideas about what it means to be a good person." Charlotte Biltekoff, "Critical Nutrition Studies," In: The Oxford Handbook of Food History, 2012, New York: Oxford University Press, 173.

[xii] Recommended bodily practices (including nutrition, hygiene and exercise norms) were normalized via Foucault’s "technologies" or "practices of the self" (Foucault, 1988, p. 18). Deborah Lupton has described such practices of prescribed self-care as "the ways in which individuals internalize modes and rules of behaviour, emotion and thought and apply them in everyday life" (Lupton, 1996, p.15). Similarly, John Coveney has described Foucault’s "modern subject" as "produced from two techniques or technologies: technologies of power and technologies of the self." The former is identified as a process by which control over individuals is acquired through means such as surveillance and normalization (Coveney, 1998, pp. 460-461). John Coveney, "The Government and Ethics of Health Promotion: The Importance of Michel Foucault," In: Health Education Research, 1998, Vol.13, no. 3, 459-468; Michel Foucault, "Technologies of the Self," In: Martin, L.H., et al (eds), Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, 1988, London: Tavistock Publications, 16-49.

Deborah Lupton, Food, the Body and the Self, 1996, London: Sage Publications.

[xiii] According to Coveney, in the work of Foucault health promotion "defines empirically what it is to be healthy (in ever expanding ways), and it ‘supervises’ the proper routes to health through a discipline which establishes for us a rapport de soi, or “ethics”’ (Coveney, 1998, p. 462).

I'd like to do some reading on government-promoted (perhaps "sponsored") nutritional technologies of the self in the UK. Does anyone have any good references to recommend in this vein? (I'm most interested in a historical period starting around the 1960s ... but I'll gratefully take any recommendations you might have!) Thank you.

Hi Leah,

My research was mostly focused on Ireland, but I also looked at some UK material.

A great place to start is the Wellcome Library and Archives in London, particularly for primary sources. They have collections of nutrition material: https://wellcomelibrary.org/collections/archive-guides/food-and-medicine/
They also tend to have good short essays / blog posts online about various topics, and some of the material is digitised (if you are not able to visit in person).

A few reading recommendations on health promotion from a theoretical perspective:

John Coveney, 1998, ‘The Government and Ethics of Health Promotion: The Importance of Michel Foucault’, In: Health Education Research, Vol.13, no. 3, 459-468
Robert Crawford, 2000, ‘The Ritual of Health Promotion’, In: Calnan, M., et al, Health Medicine and Society: Key Theories, Future Agendas, New York, Routledge, 219-235
Denise Gastaldo, 1997, ‘Is Health Education Good for You?: Re-thinking health education through the concept of bio-power’, In: Peterson, A., and Bunton, R. (eds), Foucault, Health and Medicine, London: Routledge, 113-133
Cecil G. Helman, 1990 (2nd edition), Culture, Health and Illness, Oxford: Butterworth-Heineman Ltd
Deborah Lupton, 1996, Food, the Body and the Self, London: Sage Publications

Dr Jane Hand at Warwick University has done quite a lot of research on health marketing in postwar Britain, it would be worth looking up some of her publications. Here is one on marketing margarine:

Jane Hand, 2017, ‘Marketing health education: advertising margarine and visualising health in Britain from 1964–c.2000’, In: Contemporary British History, Vol 31 No. 4, 477-500

If there's anything in particular that interests you let me know, and if I can think of any further references I'd be happy to email them to you!

All the best,