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. 😉