The Obesity Epidemic Is Caused By Overabundance Of Food

The New York Times has an interview with an applied mathematician who graduated from MIT and now works at The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (which could benefit from dropping an ‘and’). He’s been studying obesity — probably because of how it affects diabetes — for a number of years and used his mathematics background to develop a model for how the body responds to food. From this model, they created a simulator and put it on the web, so that anyone can use it to find out how much to change their eating and exercising habits in order to hit a target weight.  He also figured out why the obesity epidemic started happening, which essentially boils down to lack of will power: there’s too much food available, and it’s too inexpensive.


Along with the economy, the powers that be have been tinkering with the food supply since the unprecedented government expansion following The Great Depression. Due to the permeating despair of the time, a school of thought became very popular which advocated a middle way between socialism, in which the government completely controls the economy, and libertarianism or classical liberalism, in which the government doesn’t control the economy at all. This middle way is now known as Keynesian Economics and advocates for some level of government control over the economy, the idea being that smart people in charge can make better decisions than the market can. Economists from the libertarian camp — known as the Austrian School — included influential figures such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who over the decades persuaded government to swing its pendulum somewhat back toward libertarianism, because systems like the economy were too complex for any person to grasp, and therefore it was impossible to predict all ramifications of policies. Interestingly, after the 2008 recession, both the Keynesian and Austrian schools of thought experienced a resurgence, since both are touted as the best strategy for the economy, by their respective backers.


Returning to the food supply: during the late 1800s, after the Civil War, the government heavily encouraged farming by subsidizing land; the most famous of these measures was the Homestead Act, which gave people 160 acres of free land west of the Mississippi if they built a farm on it. The subsidy was extremely successful and resulted in populating the West, as well as turning America into the world’s breadbasket. Unfortunately, it also resulted in overproduction of food, which caused a drop in the price of food, which created a class of impoverished farmers that couldn’t sell enough crops to make ends meet.

Rather than let the surplus of farmers work itself out, during the Great Depression in the 1930s, another subsidy was introduced, this time to raise crop prices: the Agricultural Adjustment Act paid farmers to destroy crops and livestock in order to keep food prices from plummeting. Some forty years later in the 1970s, this backfired in a period of drought during which food prices rose, so yet another adjustment was made: instead of limiting the food supply to keep crop prices high so that farmers can make a living, they simply decided to get rid of the farmers. Subsidies for small farms were ended and new tax subsidies on corporate farms were introduced, since they would be big enough to deal with low crop prices. This resulted in the best of both worlds: cheap food and no impoverished farmers.

However, agricultural policy is a lot like a game of Whack-a-mole: one problem gets whacked, and another pops up. The new corporate farms starting producing corn on a scale never seen before, and they needed a way to sell all of it. They started feeding it to cows, making fuel with it in the form of ethanol, and making sugar out of it in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Cows now had high-energy, cheap food, so livestock production rose and hamburgers became cheap. Cheap sugar also meant cheap sodas and cheap desserts. Add in cheap potatoes and the fuel for the rise of fast food becomes obvious. But cheap food didn’t stop at the fast kind: for a few dollars more, you could hire some cooks and waitresses and open a cheap sit-down restaurant. The result: Americans now eat out an average of five times per week, and are rewarded with ridiculously large portions for doing so.


To recap: we solved conquering the West with the Homestead act, which resulted in poor farmers, which we solved by paying some of them not to farm, which resulted in high food prices, which we solved by converting farming into a corporate venture, which resulted in the current obesity epidemic. The average American now eats 1,000 calories a day more than in the 1970s, two out of three people are overweight, and half of those are obese. All thanks to Manifest Destiny, good intentions and lack of willpower.

On the other hand, in spite of what the signs of homeless people will have you believe, we live in the land of milk and honey: every person in the country has access to enough food, be it for free from a food kitchen, inexpensively from grocery stores, McDonald’s or Applebee’s, or for European prices at Whole Foods and Carrabba’s. Take into account the similarly falling price of entertainment — free music, movies, news and series on TV and the Internet — and we have the modern version of the Roman panem et circenses (bread and circuses). Hopefully, it won’t be followed by a future president marching the army on Washington.

The name of the country in which Hunger Games takes place, Panem, comes from "panem et circenses"


See also:


From The New York Times


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