Obesity: A Tale of Success Gone Awry

It is so tempting to blame people for their misfortunes. After all, the American Dream is all about the idea that we can control our destinies, rise out of the mud, achieve anything and avoid misfortune. Therefore, when people are not successful or have major problems, the only logical conclusion is that they suck, big time. This type of thinking explains why America in particular is so fundamentally confused and downright wrong about overweight and obesity.

To most Americans, overweight = lazy. I don’t need to convince you that you’re lazy. Irrespective of how much you weigh, you already think that. You’ve been told that all your life. We all have.


What I need to do instead is show you another way of looking at the phenomenon of overweight, so you can understand where laziness does and does not fit in. This other way begins with a new understanding of technology and agriculture.

We are ruled by technology. Agriculture especially.

As much as I am a nature loving hippie, I have to acknowledge that my life is completely, utterly, pathetically, and amazingly dependent on technology. The only good news is that humans have always been this way, and frankly, they always will be.

But the technology that really started it all is agriculture — the collection of physical tools and intellectual know-how that allowed humans to grow their own food and influence their own destiny.


Without the invention of agriculture, you – the blog-reading foodie – would not exist. Period.

The genius idea behind agriculture is that a small handful of people can grow, store and transport enough food to feed thousands and thousands of people. Most of us take this idea for granted, but historians do not. They recognize that the impact of agriculture is so profound that they describe its invention and advancement in terms of revolutions.

The first agricultural revolution, the Neolithic Revolution, occurred 7-10,000 years ago, during which technological advancements allowed the creation of enough food to sustain small cities of people. And suddenly, these city people had a ton more free time because most of them didn’t have to spend their entire day collecting food. That simple reality shift led to the start of modern culture, education, politics, massive warfare, money, urban diseases, organized religion and almost every thing good or evil you can think of. The dawn of agriculture was a full-on revolution.

Agriculture causes people to grow.


The real point is this: agriculture meant more food to spread around. And ultimately, more food meant more babies.


Why? Think about the last time you saw a bag of very old and moldy bread. If it was a small bag, say with only 3 slices of bread, then you probably saw mold spotted around 3 slices of bread. If it was a big bag, with 20 slices of bread, you probably saw mold spotted around 20 slices of bread. More bread = more mold food = more mold. The same is true of every living thing. More food around means more living things. Other complex factors (migration, disease, education, religion, public health) play an important role, but you simply cannot have population growth without a growth in food supply.


Not surprisingly, human population growth has repeatedly sky-rocketed every time there’s been major advances in our ability to produce food, i.e. a new agricultural revolution. The latest in the agricultural revolutions was the so-called Green Revolution, which took place in the late 1940-1970s with the introduction of nitrogen fertilizers and high-yield seeds. Since then, human population has more than doubled from 3 to 7 billion people[1].

Population Growth

The great irony of agriculture is that it leads to mass starvation because it periodically fails as a result of droughts, crop disease, floods or other natural disasters. Watching your fellow people starve to death is horrific. You can’t blame our ancestors for wanting to make our food supply more robust and less likely to fail. The failures of agriculture spur our desire to produce more and more food with the same or less effort.

Agriculture, Obesity and Success Failures.

Ok, one last reference to technology. Let’s say you start something called “Youtube.com” and people start liking it and using it and telling their friends about it. Now, let’s say that those friends tell their friends, and so on, and all this happens in a matter of days. Youtube becomes so popular, with so many people trying to use it, that the website crashes. In the internet world, this is called a success failure.


Obesity is the success failure of agricultural revolutions. Simply put, the amount of food available has risen so quickly that it has even out-paced our ability to reproduce. When you have more food available, people eat more food and they grow taller and fatter than their ancestors.

In America, this phenomenon was first observed when people were in theory much less lazy than they are now. At the turn of the 19th century, several technological advances (combine harvesters, for example) suddenly allowed a wheat farmer to grow and harvest 4-5x more grain than he could before. When this happened, obesity rates jumped, in one study from 3% to 5% in just 5-10 years[2].

Obesity rates grew slowly but then exploded after the Green Revolution and can be linked quite nicely to the increase in food made available by those new technologies. The current obesity crisis came about in a 30 year period, where obesity rates went from 14.5% to 30.9%[3] and calories available increased by 25%[4].

All animals tend toward laziness when circumstances allow. We call that efficiency. But it’s only when massive amounts of excess food are available that laziness can translate into weight gain.

There are now 1 billion overweight or obese people on earth. Why? Because of modern agriculture. Not because of a sudden epidemic of laziness and lack of personal responsibility.

Here’s the rub. It’s going to get worse.

Modern agriculture continues in its noble pursuit to be more lazy, excuse me, I mean more efficient. Organic agriculture is no different. It’s a noble goal after all.

At the same time, we continue to perfect our labor-saving devices so that we can burn fewer calories. And that’s lovely — it allowed me to research, write, publish and distribute this blog all by simply moving my fingers while sitting in my chair 10 steps from my bed. But our waist lines and health will pay the price.

Putting Personal Responsibility in context.

When it comes to being overweight, I like to say this “It’s not your fault, but it is your problem”. You’re overweight because your ancestors were successful. They passed on thrifty genes and learned how to grow, condense and market massive amounts of food.

As a society, we need to address the success failures that our ancestors created. We have to reshape our agricultural systems. As individuals, however, we need to understand why our own problems came about, so we can take the steps to resolve them. The journey into healing always begins with awareness.

That’s why it is so important to understand the so-called environmental side of obesity. By that, I mean that without the advances in food production, processing and marketing, your weight problem would not exist.

When you open your eyes to that understanding, you will recognize the environmental influences that are leading to over-eating. You will see massive food portions being served everywhere. You will see strong cultural eating cues at work (like “finish your plate” or “eat your meat”). You will see food marketing everywhere. You will look at your kitchen cupboards with a new perspective.

And now you’re ready to take responsibility for the few things you can control. Now you understand what you are up against.

A word to the wise.

You can manipulate your body and brain. You can, to a very real extent, influence your environment and your health. Choosing a whole-foods vegan diet is one powerful way to do so. In my next series of posts, I’ll explain why that is, give you some practical strategies to work on and explain some of the pitfalls that even the highly motivated and responsible succumb to.

[1] Lutz and Qiang. Determinants of human population growth. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B (2002) 357, 1197–1210.

[2] Helmchen LA, Henderson RM. Changes in the distribution of body mass index of white US men, 1890-2000. Ann Hum Biol. Mar-Apr 2004;31(2):174-181. With Personal Communication from author Sept 2008.

[3] Flegal KM et al. Prevalence and Trends in Obesity Among US Adults, 1999-2000. JAMA 2002; 288(14):1723-1727.

[4] ERS Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Data available here

Image Source: tpmartins/Flickr