Ever wondered where the ‘obesity epidemic started?

  • January 31, 2024
  • Running
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  • Christophe

We’ve all heard of the ‘obesity epidemic’, but if you’ve ever wondered where it started, read on. Just a quick note though, before you move on. The US FDA Food Pyramid image on this post is an illustration of one of the factors that contributed to the obesity epidemic – personally I really wouldn’t recommend applying it to your diet!

Mechanised tools, new fertilisers, and improved strains of corn

There are lots of places to start but lets firstly go back to the late 1800s. The food production yields from American farms was beginning to stagnate and the government became nervous. They therefore undertook a series of initiative to increase food production such as investment in infrastructure and irrigation to increase the amount of usable land and improve transportation. However, the biggest gains from the initiatives were in the 1920s and 30s when more efficient mechanised tools became more widely available, improved strains of corn were developed, and new fertilisers became available to support the nitrogen requirements of these new strains of corn. Over the next decade, the number of bushels or corn per acre doubled and continued to increase.

Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ for farmers

As you can imagine, with such rapidly increasing corn yields, prices began to drop. In 1933, after years of falling prices, Roosevelt introduced his ‘New Deal’ for farmers, which among other things, guaranteed prices for farmers. The failed harvest in the USSR in the mid-1960s created a sudden surge in international demand for grain, including corn. US farmers capitalized on this opportunity, again rapidly expanding production through increased acreage, improved yields, and government subsidies. This period saw the creation of large-scale, industrialized corn farms focused on maximizing output.

Commercially viable production of High Fructose Corn Syrup

The next notable date in the journey is 1967 when Yoshiyuki Takasaki, at the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, developed a heat-stable xylose isomerase enzyme from yeast, allowing the Clinton Corn Processing Company to begin commercially producing and selling an early version of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). This new, cheaper alternative to cane sugar (or sucrose) was approved by the American FDA.

Free-market capitalism

With the first ‘ingredients’ now in place (pun intended), the next event was the ‘West’s move towards market-oriented economic solutions which gained increasing support under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. This free-market capitalism focussed more on markets where prices and production are determined primarily by supply and demand, with minimal government intervention. In other words, when the focus shifts to profits, food standards drop. HFCS by now is a much cheaper alternative to sucrose and starts to be added to and replace sugar in many processed foods. For example, between 1970 and 2000, there was a 25% increase in ‘added sugars’ in the U.S. as HFCS replaced sucrose as the main sweetener of soft drinks in the United States. In parallel to these changes in economic policy and agriculture, other changes were happening too

Increased demands on workers coupled with consumer debt, real-terms wage cuts, & job insecurity

The widespread introduction of computers, email, internet and mobile phones increased worker productivity but also increased the demands of them – for many, you could no longer escape the office at 5pm. This, among other reasons, meant that workers also began to work longer hours whilst wages decreased in real-terms. Consumer debt increased, prices rose, and homes that were once supported by one income now began to need two wage earners. This also had the effect of losing the ‘homemaker’ – the person who would traditionally provide home-cooked meals. This created armies of perpetually tired, over-worked and serotonin-starved people who didn’t have the time or energy to cook from scratch. Instead, the craved calorie-packed convenience foods and the rise of ‘fast food’ restaurants increased. Fewer home-cooked dinners, more takeaways on the sofa after work.

Reduced physical activity & less time outdoors

Added to longer working hours, more widely accessible car ownership meant people stopped walking to work, and the new availability of computers, the internet and gaming consoles meant more time indoors – there is a very good correlation between this and increasing waistlines during that period.

Food quality falls – corporate profits become the primary goal

At the same time, food quality continued to decrease to allow for better corporate profits giving birth to the new generation of ultra-processed foods (generally foods which contain ingredients you wouldn’t have in a normal home kitchen). Food producers know how to make their food ‘cheap’, but they also know how to make it ‘addictive’ – and therefore sell more; increase the fat, salt and sugar contents. And when profits and growth need ‘improving’, doing this is often a lot cheaper than ‘marketing’.

Marketing becomes ever-smarter

On the subject of marketing, this has become massively more persuasive over the past four decades, even over-taking the science of behavioural psychology in some areas (for example, if you’re after an interesting read, look into what psychologists call ‘priming’ – this was discovered by marketers long before psychologists).

Corporate power yields more influence over government policy and science

As corporations became more powerful, their influence over public health also increased, primarily via bribery and corruption, oops, sorry I meant ‘lobbying’ – see the image of the US FDA Food Pyramid, for example. This was not solely based on science, rather it was very heavily influenced by the food corporations based on what they wanted people to eat, not what is actually the best for health. While we’re on the subject of increasing corporate profits by influencing what people eat, did you know that in the 1960s, the sugar industry paid to implicate ‘saturated fat’ as the cause of heart disease? You may well even still believe this propaganda to this day – many people do! Add into this mix the debt-ridden, stressed, tired and over-worked, who don’t have the knowledge or skills to cook for themselves anymore even if they had the time and energy. Of course no president or Prime Minister will get any thanks for increasing food costs, which is what happens when food standards are improved.

Obesity starts to sky-rocket

So to answer the question originally posed, although you can show average weight increasing before this, obesity started to sky-rocket around the early 90s. The ‘perfect storm’ of events leading up to this date is what created such a notable up-surge.

The prevalence of severe obesity has increased since 1993 for both men and women. A 7-times increase for men and a 3-times increase for women

Christophe