So what’s your theory?

Reader David notes my skepticism of Nina Teicholz’s theory that vegetable oils and carbs caused a spike in heart disease in the 50’s and 60’s. He asks: do I have any theories of my own about what caused it? In fact I do, David, though be warned: I have theories about pretty much everything. My personal belief is that the increase in heart disease in the middle of the last century has comparatively little to do with the specific stuff we eat (vegetable oils, carbs, animal fats, corn, transfats, take your pick). Rather it is mostly attributable to two factors: that America got rich and that America got sedentary.

It’s well known that the big shift away from “agrarian America” that began in the 1890’s and picked up steam in the 20’s and 30’s was pretty much completed by a decade after World War II. The economy was booming and a strong middle class was forming. People were moving off the farm and into the cities where the jobs were generally higher paying and the living was generally easier. They had more money and more free time than they ever had before, and they spent a good deal of it eating and relaxing. And stressing about their office jobs, also smoking, I shouldn’t forget either of those.

It’s often observed that a generation ago half of all families had at least a few members that still worked a farm somewhere. Today fewer than five percent of us do. Most of us who live in urban or suburban areas don’t have to do much physical labor anymore and we’re surrounded by food, which we eat in fairly large amounts. Add it all up and I don’t think it’s such a mystery why we’re overweight, overstressed and have a high incidence of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. We suffer from a lot of wealthy society maladies.

Social critics love to shake the shame stick at Americans for our eating habits. That’s not unwarranted, though a little perspective is in order I think. As I mentioned above, it wasn’t so long ago that a large percentage of us were farmers. And farmers generally eat a lot. They need to do that because they need the calories. Over the weekend I was talking to a neighbor who grew up working a farm. He loved remembering what his high school years were like, the sheer volume of food he ate morning, noon and night to keep him fueled. Indeed, my girls have been getting interested in the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder lately. All you have to do is read Farmer Boy, the second book in the series, to get an appreciation for how many calories were once needed to sustain farm workers — especially before the advent of motorized machinery. The boys ate stacks of pancakes and bacon in the morning, entire loaves of bread with butter for lunch, then meat, potatoes, pies, ice cream and popcorn for main meal in the evening.

What happens when poor but extremely active farm workers change to comfortable semi-active industrial workers, then finally affluent sedentary office workers over the course of a couple of generations? My guess is: pretty much what we’re seeing now in terms of obesity and heart disease if their at-home eating culture doesn’t make a corresponding shift. These observations don’t excuse us from our responsibility to take care of ourselves of course, to watch our food intake and get the exercise we need, however they do provide a little context I think. Technologies and circumstances can change fast. We human beings, being creatures of habit, can be slow to catch up.

Anyway, as we say here in Kentucky: that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. 😉

23 thoughts on “So what’s your theory?”

  1. Joe, this is why I love your site, and your insight. This theory makes so much sense, and it’s a wonder this idea isn’t already in common sense territory. Keep up the great work.

    1. Ha! Thanks Ashley! I think it is common sense to some degree, though definitely not in the world of pop food and nutrition books. There, the more sensational the theory the better: corporate conspiracies, the Nixon administration, corn, fat, carbs, vegetable oils. All of them are a lot more fun to read about than large socio-economic trends. Even if I’m right, I’m boring! 😉

      Thanks for the very generous comments though! Cheers,

      – Joe

    1. I wasn’t fishing for compliments but thank you! And I think that’s quite correct.


      – Joe

  2. I agree actually- not enough motion in our lives.
    With that said, perhaps the next step in gaming will help? XD
    that is the Oculus Rift + gaming treadmill thing.
    Here is a very funny video. (
    I say funny because he looks Really silly, I laughed my butt off the first time I watched it-but I admit, I would try it. And I know several other people who would too.
    I however will decline to be filmed. ;P

  3. I’m so glad you mentioned smoking. It’s really only been about 10 years since city-wide smoking bans have become commonplace. Before that cigarette smoke was everywhere and permeated everything. I’m sure some of the effects still linger. For example, even though my grandparents passed away in 1993, their furniture that made it to my house still off-gasses a tobacco smell on a hot and humid day. There’s not much I can do about it – it’s been absorbed into the wood.

    I’d also like to mention that chronic stress and poor sleep habits are deeply intertwined with diet and exercise, and I’d suspect that they also play a role in our modern health problems.

    1. Hey Catherine!

      Yes my grandfather spent 40 years of his life smoking and I believe it resulted in his heart disease. Heart disease isn’t prevalent in the family, we’re all blessed with low cholesterol and good tickers. He died in 1983 in his early 70’s but probably could have lived a good deal longer had it not been for the cigarettes. He was a pretty healthy guy except for that. I spent about five years of my life smoking (in my 20’s of course). Fortunately I stopped, but…what a dope!


      – Joe

      1. Smoking killed both my parents in their 60’s – lung cancer. My mom’s parents (and their siblings) lived into their late 90’s and early 100’s, faculties overall fine – well, some hearing and sight problems. My dad’s mom was in her 90’s. (I have no idea how long his dad might have lived, had he not been looking into organized crime in Chicago, where he and a few other congressmen got food poisoning at the hotel they were staying in.) My grandfather pushed a moderate diet, with exercise, on all his patients. Seemed to work for him, at least until 100.

        1. Naomi, you need to tell me your full story sometime. 100 years old? Congressman? Organized crime? Some seriously interesting stuff in your family!

          – Joe

          1. HA! I find most people don’t believe a quarter of the tales – unless they grew up with me and shared in the adventures (which was not always a good thing).

  4. Oh what a breath of fresh air. It’s amazing to me how rarely people mention the increase in sedentary jobs in all these health arguments. Thanks Joe!

    1. Thanks, V! At least it makes more sense to me than searching around for a single dietary factor on which to blame all our ills. We’ve seen how that’s worked for the last many decades — not at all!


      – Joe

  5. If you read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, you’ll see that food plays a VERY big part in the books. Her family ate a lot of salt pork and cornmeal and most of it was fried in lard or butter. But her family worked very, very hard and there was no heating in the homes. In one book, The Long Winter, they survived for several months on bread made by grinding wheat in a coffee grinder and cooked in an oven heated by hay that had been rolled into hard sticks.

    1. Funny you should mention that, we’re reading that one right now. The first snows have yet to fall, but there was an early frost so the writing is on the wall!

      But that’s an excellent point. Food does play a big part in all the book. It’s quite amazing the contrast between frontier families and farming families. On the frontier it’s a hardscrabble existence. Food is hard to find and/or hard to grow and the diet is extremely limited. On the farm — or at least on the successful farm portrayed in Farmer Boy — it’s a whole different story. The work is harder but the eating is great!

      Thanks, Ellen!

      – Joe

  6. Even without the change from agrarian living to urban, people have a hard time changing their eating habits from one phase of life to another. It came as quite a shock to my husband when his body no longer efficiently burned the tons of daily calories he’d been taking in ever since he was a pre-teen. As you age, your metabolism slows or, at least it does for most people.

    As far as fats=heart disease…a lot of people are in the same boat I am (and my father was). We take in small amounts of “bad” cholesterol and it’s as if it multiplies. I have a genetic glitch to thank for my heart stent and daily dose of statins, not a diet high in cholesterol and physical inactivity. All that said, I’d still rather eat a small amount of real butter than slather on margarine–I’d rather trust a cow than a chemist.

    1. Love that last line, Bryn! And yes you completely right…bodies do change indeed. I’ve always had to watch it, from the time I was a kid, since I’ve always put on weight easily. But I’ve watched a lot of friends who used to enjoy the all-you-can-eat buffet become frustrated that their same engine isn’t running as hot in their 40’s. Great comment!


      – Joe

  7. Really great theory! I would also add sedentary pastimes to the sedentary jobs: more TV and fewer group activities like softball and bowling. Also car culture. I moved to France a few years back and stopped driving. Took off a lot of weight and I eat better than ever 🙂

    1. Woohoo! Well done! And yes, Mrs. Pastry lived in New York for a while, where only the truly insane drive cars. She walked everywhere, and like a lot of New Yorkers who rely on their feet to take them from A to B, she burned a lot of calories!

      Cheers and great point,

      – Joe

  8. Where I live — in Medellin, Colombia — much of what you say Joe is playing itself out here as well — only a generation later. Being that a “tipico” main (lunch) meal here is heavy on fat and calories… usually a piece of fried meat with white rice, beans, a fried egg, an arepa, a slice of avacado with a small salad, a large bowl of soup, and some sweetened fruit juice. This “hold-over menu” (from the days when mule-train traders never knew how long it would be until their next meal and needed the caloric reserves) is nevertheless still the favorite here. But, in the wealthier areas of town where the upper and middle classes with cars and sedentary jobs is growing all the time (as are the fast-food offerings) so are the waistlines. But up the hills (Medellin is one big valley) where most of the poorer folks live and walking up and down the steep streets is part of the daily routine, you don’t see as much “spread”. But fear not… those with the cash (or credit) have a solution… as getting liposuction is about as commonplace as having implants (top and/or bottom) is here. These Colombian women — though they don’t know much about baseball — do so love their curves. Welcome to modern (Latin) American life!

    1. That’s pretty much modern life everywhere, Jim! But wow you’re making me homesick, there was a good Colombian spot near my old apartment in Chicago…I sure loved those lunches!

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  9. Undoubtedly very true. Many people would find it shocking to hear what type of diet athletes eat, in an effort to satisfy the huge calorie expenditure. Just ask Michael Phelps. One thing that people don’t always realize is that brain work requires large amounts of food as well, sometimes even more than physical activity does. Carbs and fat. So evolution has answers if you choose to follow.But that too requires effort like exercising does. I happen to think that meat, synonymously always called “protein” in every nutrition article, also plays a role in the stats. In the old days a family would slaughter one pig and one dairy animal a year, plus a small flock of chickens maybe, to last them through the winter. That gave them just enough lard, lean meat and charcuterie for later in the season. The math translates to a meat dish once or twice a week, not meatless Monday. The more you are detached from your food, the more desensitized you become, and the more your heart suffers literally. A somewhat philosophical way of looking at it, I know, but perhaps not without a basis given the recent studies on carnitine.

    1. I like that a lot, Dani! Thanks very much for an insightful and thought-provoking comment.


      – Joe

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