USDA old food pyramid

Ever wondered when the ‘obesity epidemic’ actually started?

  • January 31, 2024
  • Running
  • Christophe

Edit 2nd May 2024: This is to clarify that this article is about ‘when’ the obesity crisis started (or you could say the events leading up to the beginning), not ‘why’ people are becoming overweight. The ‘why’ is due to ultra-processed foods (UPFs), and reason ultra-processed foods exist is due to the psychopathic commercialising of the food industry. In other words, foods specifically and primarily designed to make profits without regard to nutrition. The word ‘psychopathic’ is a strong word to use, however it’s used in this context to emphasise the remorseless pursuit of profits over nutrition (and I mean without remorse). UPFs have been introduced en masse over the past 40 years, and over that time they’ve been refined (pun intended) to make them evermore so addictive and moreish. Literally, moreish – people can’t stop eating them! Studies show that people tend to eat over 20% more calories when eating UPFs (Nova 4 foods) as opposed to other processed or unprocessed foods (Nova 1-3 class foods), and the sugar is the main ingredient causing this (closely followed by Refined, Deodorised, and Bleached oils – RDB oils). These foods have been designed to make people want them, and the food industry has spent millions on marketing, creating misleading ‘scientific studies’, and lobbying governments to allow them. Many of the ingredients are carcinogenic or cause serious long-term health problems – we know this, governments know this, and the food manufacturers know this. However, they’re still allowed so food manufacturers still produce and market them. This is psychopathic behaviour by the individuals involved. In living memory the excuse ‘I was just following orders’ was used to justify behaviour. Personally, I don’t think this is an excuse. Anyone working in the food industry, in a position of influence, is culpable. Perdue Pharma, Nestle and DuPont are just the companies that got caught for putting profits above anything else. Many more are simply ‘flying under the radar’.

We’ve all heard of the ‘obesity epidemic’, but if you’ve ever wondered when and 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 were beginning to stagnate so 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 these 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, and improved yields, whilst also receiving 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, ultimately 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 quickly approved for human consumption by the American FDA (Food and Drugs Administration).

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 new 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, the focus shifted to profits, and food standards began to drop. By this point, HFCS is a now 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, for example, 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 increasing consumer debt, real-terms wage cuts, & job insecurity increases the demand for processed foods

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 once could be 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 for the family. 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, they craved calorie-packed convenience foods and the age of ‘fast food’ began. Fewer home-cooked dinners, and more takeaways on the sofa after work – the recipe for obesity.

Reduced physical activity & less time outdoors

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

Food quality falls as corporate profits become the primary goal

During this period, food quality continued to decrease to allow for higher corporate profits giving birth to the new generation of ultra-processed foods (very generally defined as foods which contain ingredients you wouldn’t have in a normal home kitchen). Food producers know how to make their food ‘cheap’ (by substituting more expensive ingredients with cheaper ones), but they also know how to make it ‘addictive’, and therefore sell more; they could simply increase the fat, salt and sugar contents. So when profits need to increase, reducing ingredient costs and making their food more ‘addictive’ is a great way doing this – and is often a lot faster and cheaper than traditional ‘marketing’.

Marketing becomes ever-smarter

Marketing didn’t stop, though, it just became ‘better’. Over the past four decades, new advertising avenues also appeared, and the science behind advertising even overtook the science of behavioural psychology in some areas (for example, if you’re after an interesting read, look into what psychologists call ‘priming’ – discovered by advertisers 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’. For example, the image used to illustrate this article is of the US FDA Food Pyramid, 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 people who no longer have the time, energy, or skills to cook for themselves anymore. Of course no president or Prime Minister will get any thanks for increasing food costs, which is what would happen if food standards are improved – that would be a guaranteed vote loser!

UPFs and the marketing evolve as they’re optimised

Ingredients and marketing are tweaked based on sales. Data becomes the driver and profits become destination. Shareholders demand bigger dividends and food producers lobby governments to allow chemicals to be passed off as food.

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