Inverting the Fat-Thin Paradigm

Marion Nestle: You know obesity used to be good because if people got infectious diseases they didn’t have much in the way of resources in order to protect themselves from dying if they got sick.  And food was scarce.  It was hard to get.  People had to work hard to get it.  And we . . .  Most evolutionists who look at this kind of thing think that people evolved to keep a reasonable weight when they had to work hard to get their food.  Now that all we have to do is push a shopping cart around, it becomes a liability.  Our evolution becomes a liability.  And so that’s on the whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent side.  I mean we just live in a society in which we’re not as active and are eating much more than we used to.  People really eat a lot more than they used to.

    (35:24) But I wanted to address the question of what happened to . . . When did people start gaining weight in the United States?  People started gaining weight in the early 1980s.  That’s when rates of obesity, which had been relatively constant, suddenly started to rise very sharply.  And I think there are three reasons for why that happened.  The first was women going back into the workforce and it wasn’t . . .  Let’s always blame women first, right?  (Chuckles)  Sorry about that.  But when women went back into the workforce, there wasn’t somebody at home making meals during the day and keeping all that together.  And there was a big push for convenience foods and to make them more convenient.  I actually don’t think that’s nearly as important as the second two factors.  The second was a change in farm policy of all things, which went from paying farmers not to grow food to rewarding farmers for growing as much food as they possibly can.  And that has to do with farm subsidies and other kinds of farm supports. And by the early 1980s farmers had gotten really good at growing as much food as they possibly can.  And there was a very, very sharp increase in the number of calories available in the food supply that started right around the early 1980s, so that it went from 3,200 calories a day to the present 3,900 calories a day.  Well companies had to sell that food, so I’ve already talked about that.  But companies had to sell that food, and they worked hard to do that.  And the third reason also played into that, which was the beginning of what is called . . . this is Wall Street . . . is the beginning of what is called the Shareholder Value Movement.  This was a movement that was attributed to a speech by Jack Welch who was then the head of General Electric in 1981, in which he said enough of this blue chip stock business.  Investors ought to be rewarded for their investment now.  We want immediate and higher turns . . . returns on investment.  And so under those circumstances for a food company already selling food in an extraordinarily competitive atmosphere, it was no longer enough just to make a profit on food sales.  They had to grow, and they had to grow their profits every quarter – every 90 days.  And that,  I think, put food companies into a situation that was really difficult for them.  And that was when they began the intensive marketing efforts that have led to the present situation.  They developed larger portions.  Those were introduced in the early 1980s exactly in parallel with rising rates of obesity.

Our evolution has become a liability, Nestle says.

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