The Historical Development of Obesity as a National Pastime

What we eat creates the environment in our body that leads us to health problems in the future.  We are, as they say, what we eat.
What we eat creates the environment in our body that leads us to health problems in the future. We are, as they say, what we eat.

The human biology by 10k years ago was finely tuned to live a hunter gatherer society. When we killed something we gorged on it because of food scarcity, we turned off the trigger in our head that told us that we were full because it simply was not the right thing to do in an environment were we didn’t have security in food supply the next day or down the week.  But the human population couldn’t take on that sort of life style in the long run because of our population growth.  That lead to the development of an agricultural society where villages and farming became central to survival.

Thats how society was up until the end of the 19th century.  The US was at a turning point in history where we had to start coming up with the means to deal with food scarcity, how will we ensure that there is a secure way to maintain the availability of food for the entire population?  Thats when the process being applied in the industrial revolution began to appear in agriculture, giving us industrial agriculture.

We go modern agriculture out of this industrial revolution.  We needed to be stronger militarily but we needed food security.  The government began subsidizing farmers, supporting research and scientific development.  We immediately saw this impact the per acre yield of farms, by nearly 20 times.  An acre that would once eek out 20 bushels was now giving up upwards of 200 bushels.  This abundance of grains results in a new problem- lots of extra grains that we don’t know what to do with.

So the government began selling it abroad and farmers were now involved in what developed as a commodity.  The grain was no longer staple food source, but rather the raw product that government scientist with added industry application had created from the raw grain ingredients.  The prices fluctuated and various government policies development until 1973 when the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Earl Butz, demanded that farmers either get big or get out.  With that a new stage in agriculture began, one that continues to this day: Big Agriculture and the demise of the family farm, that farm that is idealized or romanticized in our current food marketing environment.

Farmers kept producing an over abundance of subsidized grains that inundated the market to which the government and industry kept looking for new ways to use.  Because the grain was cheap and high in sugar it began to be used to feed livestock.  We wanted to keep food prices cheap and very stable.  We built a food economy around this idea of surplus.

While all of this was happening around the way we approached food, other technological advances were changing other parts of our lives.  Quite simply technology was all about connivence.  We now live in places where we are car dependent, which has cut off our ability to burn calories.  We don’t bike, we don’t walk we don’t do physical activity because we have engineered it out of our lives.  our work as adults has become sedentary.  We are an automated society that is eating food that is cheap and heavy in calories.

The food environment itself is now hostile to healthy eating because we are bombarded by queues through marketing that tell us to eat fast food, food that provides convenience, things that hurt us in the long run because we don’t have a lifestyle or a community living environment that is conducive to burning off all those sugars, fat and rich calorie foods.

Its not that there are evil corporations, incompetent government and an American population that is driven by a lack of self control.  The current reality we live in was rooted in a real human problem, has grown in the context of sociological challenge of providing food (at one point 45% of an American households expenditure) for cheap.  The government pays farmers $45 billion every five years to over produce soy, corn, dairy and wheat as commodity crops not as staple foods.  The foods that contain these products is cheaper because the government is paying you to buy it through the money that they pay Big Agriculture.

Good example is soft drinks and raw fruits.  In the past 20 years the price of Soda went up 20% whereas the price of raw fruits (healthy stuff) went up 117%.  Soda’s main ingredient is high fructose corn syrup, made from the overly abundantly corn grown in America.  Surprisingly enough, fruit and vegetable growers don’t get government subsidies.

These abundant and cheap ingredients have stimulated the growth of a food industry with a financial incentive to use corn and soy products (such as high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, modified corn starches, etc.) to produce a huge quantity and variety of highly processed foods and not vegetable and fruits.  The reason is that corn and soy have, over the century of industrializing agriculture, were found to be the product that lent itself best to the industrial process, not broccoli or squash or sweet peas.

Our farm policies are driving farmers to overproduce exactly the types of foods that are driving obesity in this country while our desire to have the greatest degree of convenience (i.e. freedom) in our lives especially the degree to which we can spend money on “other” items rather then on food.  In the end though, our indulgence in eating is producing obesity, but this national pastime has not developed outside of a historical context.

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