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Tracing the Origins of the American Obesity Epidemic

In his book, “In Defense of Food,” Michael Pollan traces the deterioration of the American diet to 1977, when dietary recommendations became political. A well intentioned Senator George McGovern had introduced the “Dietary Recommendations for the United States,” lamenting that the American diet had become full of fatty meats and sugary soft drinks that were causing disease.

The report started a firestorm because every food has a powerful lobby. Discussion of actual foods had to be watered down only to mention mere nutrients. It was politically incorrect, for example, to distinguish between beef, chicken or fish. “Now the culprit is an obscure, invisible, tasteless – and politically unconnected – substance that may or may not lurk in them called saturated fat.”

Keeping the topic of nutrition close to and safe for the food lobbies, the 1977 Farm Bill placed our national nutritional authority with the US Department of Agriculture rather than an agency focused on human health. Our government and the massive agricultural subsidies that it doles out could now stop thinking about nutrition in terms of whole foods, which were too politically dangerous, and could shift to a reductionism that parsed food into a limited set of nutrients that could be quantified, processed, and manufactured.

With food merely a vehicle for delivering nutrients, the age of manufactured and processed nutrients—Pollan does not call it food—could flourish. The American obesity epidemic could begin, further accelerating chronic disease and health care costs due to an aging population. You can find the Obesity in America trend slides here.

Like every good manufacturing process that wins through ever increasing efficiency, our food supply raced toward the cheapest form of calories: Grains that could be mass produced and fertilized out of otherwise increasingly barren soil, to become concentrated and cheap forms of calories like high fructose corn syrup.

We also shifted to feeding livestock with the same cheap calories. No more green leaves ever needed to enter our food chain. We always could add back in manufactured vitamins to fortify the products to meet the government recommendations.

But food is much more complex than the limited collection of nutrients that we currently understand. Each blueberry contains dozens and dozens of anti-oxidants balanced by hundreds of generations of natural selection. That’s just not the same as blueberry flavored high fructose corn syrup fortified with the singular chemical entity known as Vitamin C.

The reductionist approach to food as a collection of manufactured nutrients broke the longstanding connection between our food and nature. For eons, the act of preparing and eating food has been the primary and fundamental interface between our physical bodies and the nature that sustains us and of which we are part.

When the food chain was short, the foods themselves were complex, and we were reminded with every trip to the market of our connection to the natural world and to the soil from which our food originates. Food was something that we could identify: an apple, a banana, a chicken leg.

Now the manufactured food chain is long, with so many participants from so many places that we have no idea where the ingredients in the box of cereal we had for breakfast really came from. We no longer know what we are eating. It comes from a complex supply chain from around the world, a supply chain optimized by market forces for long shelf life and high margins, not for human health.

Michael Pollan’s advice is to leave behind manufactured processed nutrients and take a step back toward nature: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Sounds like good advice to me.

Steve Brown is an entrepreneur and active board member in innovative software and Internet businesses. He is the founder and former CEO of Health Hero Network, a pioneer in ehealth and remote health monitoring, acquired by Bosch in 2007. Steve Brown blogs at http://brown2020.com.

Steve Brown is an entrepreneur and active board member in innovative software and Internet businesses. He is the founder and former CEO of Health Hero Network, a pioneer in ehealth and remote health monitoring, acquired by Bosch in 2007. You can read Steve Browns blog at http://brown2020.com.

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