Modern Diets Are Killing Us
It's not hyperbole—the facts speak for themselves
Before we move on, I'd like to take the opportunity to talk about one of the most troubling things I've ever read. In this case, it's not a book, but an internet article from Palladium Magazine entitled The Modern Diet is a Biosecurity Threat. At first glance, the title might sound a bit hyperbolic. After reading the article, however, you realize that, if anything, it's vastly understating the enormity of the issue.
The genius of the article is how it ties together so many things: the epidemic of chronic diseases, dietary changes, the industrialization of the food supply, environmental devastation, for-profit capitalism, technology, and globalization. On top of that, it also debunks some of the well-rehearsed myths surrounding this topic. It's always difficult to review something like this, since it's hard to resist the temptation to simply cut and paste the entire thing! Definitely go and read the original article because I can’t summarize all its points. Unfortunately, there are going to be a lot of blockquotes—sorry!
The article starts out by describing the research of dentist Dr. Weston Price. Price was genuinely disturbed about the kinds of health changes he was seeing in his patients. Dental problems that had once been relatively rare were suddenly becoming common. This occurred alongside a general worsening of public health that was increasingly impossible to ignore. Doctors like Price lived far back enough in time that they were able to observe first-hand the changes in human health that we now just take for granted. This was happening all over the world.
Price had noticed a rapid increase in dental problems roughly around the end of the nineteenth century. Before, he had been able to expect a baseline of dental health in his patients and research subjects. Now, that was rapidly slipping away, and cavities, once rare, were quickly proliferating. Tooth decay was everywhere. Something had clearly changed, and the modern diet—then only in its infancy—was the leading suspect.
Medical professionals across the Western world were observing the same trend: as the Boston dentist Gustave Wiksell noted in 1902, “before American-process flour was shipped to Sweden, two generations ago, two dentists were enough for the whole city of Stockholm…now they are as thick as in an American city.”
Price retired and set out on a quest to try and determine the root cause. To that end, he spent time among people still practicing their traditional lifestyles all over the world. Again, because this was such a long time ago (the 1930s), he was able to find many more people living that way than we could today. According to Wikipedia, among them were, "the Lötschental in Switzerland, Native Americans, Polynesians, Pygmies, and Aborigines, among many others."
What he found was what we still find today. Everywhere local foods were still eaten and traditional methods of food preparation were still practiced, people were entirely free of the diseases that plagued Western industrialized societies. But once they stopped eating their traditional diets, tooth decay—and a raft of other diseases—soon followed. He also wrote extensively about the cultures of the people he encountered, including their physical robustness which far exceeded anything seen among people living in supposedly more “advanced” societies:
Virtually everywhere he went, all those who had not yet adopted a modern diet and were still eating their ancestral foods—whether based on fish, meat, dairy, or fruit—exhibited far better dental health than those eating modern diets. People who had never seen a dentist or orthodontist were in no need of them. In many isolated groups, Price found no instances at all of tooth decay...
When those same groups started eating what he called “the foods of commerce”—white flour, sugar, jams, marmalades, canned goods—their teeth rapidly degraded, with cavities becoming endemic. He was horrified by what colonization had done to the health of the Aboriginals of Australia: “In their native life where they could get the foods that keep them well and preserve their teeth, they had no need for dentists. Now they have need, but have no dentists.”
And it was not just a matter of rotten teeth. Almost everywhere he looked, whether among Swiss breadmakers or Nilotic hunter-gatherers, he found that traditional diets were more conducive to physical development than modern ones. In traditional communities, people had levels of strength and physical ability that astonished him...
Price's work, like many others who study traditional cultures, was swept under the rug. One can't help but think Price's work was neglected and ignored because of it's troubling implications. Of course, the usual denunciations followed: that the people he studied spent most of their time starving and malnourished, that they didn't live past thirty, that this was another version of the "noble savage" myth, et cetera, et cetera. But subsequent research by others has backed up and extended many of Price's observations. Not only do our teeth rot out more often, but our jaws—and even our skulls—do not develop properly anymore leading to conditions like dental crowding and sleep apnea1. This article from Scientific American goes into great detail about the reasons for these problems, all of which are due to modern diets and lifestyles:
Orthodontic disorders are...at epidemic levels today. Nine in 10 people have teeth that are at least slightly misaligned, or maloccluded, and three quarters of us have wisdom teeth that do not have enough room to emerge properly. Simply put, our teeth do not fit in our jaws. The ultimate cause is, as with caries, an imbalance caused by an oral environment our ancestors’ teeth never had to contend with.
The famed Australian orthodontist “Tick” Begg recognized this mismatch back in the 1920s. He found that Aboriginal peoples living traditional lifestyles wore their teeth down more than his dental patients of European ancestry did. They also had perfect dental arches—their front teeth were straight, and their wisdom teeth were fully erupted and functioning.
Begg reasoned that nature expects wear between adjacent teeth to reduce space requirements in the mouth. He believed that jaw length was “preprogrammed” by evolution to take this into account. So our teeth evolved for tough foods in an abrasive environment, and our soft, clean diet has upset the balance between tooth size and jaw length. Hence the assembly line at the oral surgeon’s office. Whether by wear or extraction, tooth mass has to go.
Begg was right about the mismatch between teeth and jaws, but he got the details wrong. According to anthropologist Rob Corruccini of Southern Illinois University, the key change was not to the abrasive environment but to the stress environment, meaning the mechanical stresses jaws experience during eating. And the teeth were not too big—the jaw was too small.
Why We Have So Many problems With Our Teeth (Scientific American)
But looking at traditional peoples obscured the inconvenient fact that people were on the whole much sicker than those who had lived just a few generations earlier! Modern diet patterns only started to supplant traditional methods of cooking and eating during the late nineteenth century, and became more entrenched by the turn of the twentieth.
But before recent times, most people were starving, weren't they? There simply wasn't enough food to go around, right? That’s the common perception which is constantly reinforced by the evangelists of progress. But is this based on any actual data, or is it a myth? The author cites a series of studies done by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine which looked at the diets of people in preindustrial Britain. Rather than constantly living on the verge of starvation, instead the study found that the vast majority of people ate a diet far more nutritious than today, and, due to their more active lifestyles, they actually consumed more calories. Here’s a key passage:
The mid-Victorian diet, the study found, was rich in vegetables, fruits—especially cherries and apples, with between eight and ten portions a day—Omega-3 fatty acids, nuts, whole grains, and meat. This meat, in turn, did not come from expensive prime cuts, but mainly from micronutrient-rich organ meats, drippings, and bones.
[As we learned from Eat Like a Human, organ meats are actually more nutritious! This may be another reason why, as people got richer, they eschewed organ meats—it was considered a food of the poor and the peasantry in European cultures. The predominant American cultural ideal has always been to live like Anglo-Saxon royalty.]
Though the mid-Victorian working poor may have been hungry more frequently than we are—food was not always instantly available for “snacking” in the way it is today—they almost certainly ate more in absolute terms: “Due to the levels of physical activity routinely undertaken by the mid-Victorian working classes, calorific requirements ranged between 150-200 percent of today’s historically low values.” It was not a perfect diet—food quality, especially when it came to meat, left much to be desired—but it was by no means the starvation diet we typically think of.
All of this created a population that was far healthier than we are accustomed to believing, reared on “something closer to the Mediterranean diet or even the Paleolithic diet than the modern Western diet,” with far higher intakes of micronutrients and phytonutrients than we enjoy today. A land of widespread malnutrition, mid-Victorian Britain was not.
Corresponding to a better diet were much more vigorous lives: nearly all British workers would have qualified as very active by today’s ultra-sedentary standards. At the top end of physical hardiness were the railway builders, who could “routinely shovel up to 20 tons of earth per day from below their feet to above their heads”—a feat requiring tremendous amounts of strength that few people today could match. Leisure activities, from gardening to informal football, were similarly vigorous.
Cancer incidences were shockingly low as well. In 1869, a doctor in Charing Cross Hospital in London described lung cancer as “one of the rarer forms of a rare disease. You may probably pass the rest of your student’s life without seeing another example of it.” When they did occur, cancers were much less rapidly progressive than they are today…
The amount of food consumed on the other side of the Atlantic was apparently even more generous, especially when it came to protein. This Atlantic article discusses meat consumption in particular, but it gives an idea of just how abundant food was in the diets of Americans going back for over a century. Once again, it doesn't look like everyone was starving and hungry in the recent past, despite the conspicuous absence of chronic health conditions:
In the book Putting Meat on the American Table, researcher Roger Horowitz scours the literature for data on how much meat Americans actually ate. A survey of 8,000 urban Americans in 1909 showed that the poorest among them ate 136 pounds a year, and the wealthiest more than 200 pounds.
A food budget published in the New York Tribune in 1851 allots two pounds of meat per day for a family of five. Even slaves at the turn of the 18th century were allocated an average of 150 pounds of meat a year. As Horowitz concludes, “These sources do give us some confidence in suggesting an average annual consumption of 150–200 pounds of meat per person in the nineteenth century.” About 175 pounds of meat per person per year—compared to the roughly 100 pounds of meat per year that an average adult American eats today...
How Americans Got Red Meat Wrong (The Atlantic)
Based on archaeological studies, these dietary patterns are fairly typical of agrarian societies as far as we can tell. We already saw that the builders of Stonehenge ate roast pork, butter, and cheese, and the members of the Neolithic Halstatt culture in Europe dined on beer and blue cheese. The evidence indicates that these eating patterns held fairly consistent to more recent times. One study of medieval cooking vessels found that they ate a diet rich in meat and cheese—two of the foods that Schindler discussed. This was supplemented by hardy vegetables like leeks and cabbage:
By identifying the lipids, fats, oils and natural waxes on the ceramics, the team found that stews of mutton and beef with vegetables such as cabbage and leek were a mainstay of the medieval peasant diet. However, dairy products such as cheese also played an important role...Dunne and her colleagues also examined a range of historical documents for their study, finding that medieval peasants ate meat, fish, dairy products, fruit and vegetables.
Peasants in medieval England ate a diet of meat stew and cheese (New Scientist)
Another study looked at the diets of medieval children by studying teeth. They found that children graduated from soft foods like milk, flour, eggs, broth and butter to a diet of "pottage" comprised of meat and vegetables by around age 6 or 7. As we saw above, it's been shown that chewing tough foods is required for proper jaw development, and these foods helped ensure that. Perhaps most remarkably, they found that this diet was consumed regardless of the child's economic status! Upper-class or lower class, they all ate the same foods. Compare that today where the rich eat much better diets than the poor. And, once again, dental decay was uncommon compared to modern children.
Based on these studies, it doesn't sound like everyone, everywhere, was starving for most of antiquity, does it?
When you think about it, this makes total sense. In a world of exclusively human and animal muscle power, we know that average people in the past lived much more vigorous lives than we do today, so they must have been able to procure enough calories to support that lifestyle. We know from scientific studies like the Minnesota Starvation Experiment what happens when people don't get enough calories. They can hardly work. They are constantly cold. Getting more food occupies every waking moment of their thoughts, and even their dreams. They become obsessed with eating and cooking. It crowds out everything else. It's simply the laws of thermodynamics, as we learned from Herman Pontzer’s work.
A cursory glance through history should convince you that this is not a valid description of most people’s daily lives in past eras. Starving people don't build the Pyramids or Stonehenge. They don't construct roads, aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals. The don't build the Taj Mahal, Great Zimbabwe, or Chichén Itzá. They don't compose music or write poetry. They don't develop trading regimes and invent algebra. Sure, there must have been starving people in the past. But there are starving people today! Even in our era of trumpeted abundance, three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet according to Our World in Data.
A common complaint is that the news media makes us hyperattuned to conflicts and disasters when the vast majority of the world goes about their daily lives in peace and harmony. But the same people who make this point neglect the fact that this also distorts how we think about the past, too. We read about famines and wars in the history books, but this belies the fact that these events were exceptional rather than the rule, otherwise people would not have written about them. They were remarkable when they did occur. Extreme starvation and want were not the lot of most of humanity prior to the iPhone. Certainly they weren't for the peoples Weston Price studied.
Yet, despite this abundance of food in the nineteenth century, Americans were much healthier overall than the generations that were to follow. Many of the diseases which were later associated with, for example, excessive meat consumption were virtually nonexistent in the past, forcing us to consider other explanations:
Reliable data from death certificates is not available, but other sources of information make a persuasive case against the widespread appearance of [heart] disease before the early 1920s. Austin Flint, the most authoritative expert on heart disease in the United States, scoured the country for reports of heart abnormalities in the mid-1800s, yet reported that he had seen very few cases, despite running a busy practice in New York City. Nor did William Osler, one of the founding professors of Johns Hopkins Hospital, report any cases of heart disease during the 1870s and eighties when working at Montreal General Hospital...
About one fifth of the U.S. population was over 50 years old in 1900. This number would seem to refute the familiar argument that people formerly didn’t live long enough for heart disease to emerge as an observable problem. Simply put, there were some 10 million Americans of a prime age for having a heart attack at the turn of the 20th century, but heart attacks appeared not to have been a common problem.
As this article, Misperceiving Life Expectancy in the Deep Past, points out, living to old age was not an unheard of occurrence in the past. Life expectancy at birth is not life expectancy at middle age. Although public health records are scant to nonexistent, we see very little in the way of chronic diseases. Lifespan and healthspan were similar. What happened?
Basically, what happened was the opening of vast new grain-producing regions combined with what economic historians refer to as the "First Age of Globalization," which some argue was even more integrated than that of today. This drove down the price of foods that were formerly rare like white flour, corn, beef, tobacco, tea, coffee, and sugar. Fruits and vegetables, however, were less able to be preserved and shipped long distances, remaining roughly the same price: "It was the birth of the mass modern diet: high in ultra-processed carbohydrates, sugar, and fats, and deficient in many of the phytonutrients and micronutrients that defined traditional diets."
Driving the cost of food down was critical for the Industrial Revolution to take place. Cheap imported food drove local farmers under and forced them into “Satanic Mills” out of desperation. Cheap food broke the political power of Britain's aristocratic landowners in favor of the new mercantile elite who bent government policy to their will. Cheap food meant bargain-basement wages that allowed British exports to dominate the global economy making England the first “workshop of the world.” Processed food meant less time cooking so people could spend ten hours a day in the factories, with stimulants like coffee, tea, and sugar keeping them alert.
This regime also unleashed unprecedented environmental destruction. The plowing up of deep-rooted perennial grasses on the Great Plains to sow annual wheat crops eventually led to the Dust Bowl. In Argentina, the pampas became a major cattle-producing region, as did the American West. Now, cattle ranching is spreading into marginal areas like tropical rain forests. Transforming the prairie into ranges for beef cattle and wheat fields caused the American bison to nearly become extinct, and destroyed the traditional lifeways of the Plains Indians. In a bitter irony, in the nineteenth century the Plains Indians were the tallest and healthiest people on the planet.
As the British swapped out their locally-produced seasonal foods and traditional methods of food preparation—including many of the ones we talked about last time—their health dramatically declined. By the beginning of the twentieth century, recruiters for the British Empire noticed that increasing numbers of people were too sickly to serve in the military. The height requirement was dropped down to just five feet in order to get enough recruits.
But even as the British populace welcomed it, the cheapening of food led to a significant deterioration in physical health. The British diet entered a severe downturn at the end of the 1870s, one from which it has arguably never recovered. The decline of foods like offal made nutrient deficiencies much more common. The increase in sugar consumption alone did so much damage to people’s teeth that many were now unable to chew tough foods. Tooth decay had been rare in Britain until the mid-nineteenth century; now it was ubiquitous…At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a dramatic increase in chronic degenerative diseases—like cancer and diabetes—that had previously been rare.
This was what Price observed a short time later in the United States. As we saw last time, the opening of the Transcontinental Railroad brought large quantities of meat to the Midwest and East Coast putting local butchers out of business. The cost of wheat and maize plummeted as monocrops were planted from horizon to horizon. Swill dairies operating in cities distributed contaminated milk, leading to pasteurization as the solution. Sugar, cocoa, bananas, and coffee flowed north from plantations in the Caribbean, and oranges from Florida. The rolling mill process made bleached white flour cheap and abundant. As the cultivation of winter produce took off in the Southwest, it was no longer necessary to preserve local foods or eat in season. People quit gardening and went off to work in offices and factories instead.
This noticeable decline in health kicked off a series of moral panics (much like today). All sorts of health fads sprang up trying to explain what was happening to us and what to do about it. Doctor Harvey Kellogg claimed the answer was a bland diet of wheat mush along with celibacy (creating the cereal industry). Sylvester Graham (of cracker fame) promoted vegetarianism as the answer (along with celibacy). One doctor recommended chewing your food a hundred times before swallowing. Clark Stanley recommended a tonic of rattlesnake oil to cure what ailed you—the origin of that phrase.
The supposed loss of manly vigor led to the origin of "Muscular Christianity", which influences the United States to this day2. Some of this led to a very dark place. The widespread perception of "degeneration" was tied to ideas of eugenics and the pollution of "lesser" races. Social Darwinism became all the rage (again, much like today). "Fitter family" and "better baby" contests were held to search for ideal physical specimens (the origin of modern beauty pageants). In an era of increasing nationalism, the vigor of individual citizens was connected with the vigor of the nation.
Despite all this consternation, the end result was very similar to today. We basically threw up our hands and started putting all the onus on lone individuals to solve their own problems, and bullied and shamed everyone who couldn’t, neglecting the larger social context (essentially what we have done with obesity). In short, we simply gave up and accepted the new status quo3:
By the 1920s and ‘30s, the prerogative for responding to the problems created by diet had moved from the cultural realm to the spheres of medicine and public health. Any sense of a coherent, holistic response to the health problems created by the advent of industrial diet and lifestyle had been lost. Instead, institutions adopted a variety of “public health” tweaks to ameliorate the problem...These interventions did improve specific health outcomes, but only by treating emergent symptoms while the underlying malignancy—a physiologically harmful way of eating and living—continued to metastasize.
But as bad as things were, they were about to get a whole lot worse.
The Second Transformation
After the Second World War, a new era of globalization dawned, this time with things like the cold chain, chemical food processing, marketing, and the green revolution. As this regime unfolded, giant corporations gained an iron grip over the world’s food supply. In their relentless pursuit of profit, processed foods were spread far and wide, supplanting traditional customs and local foods. Corn was produced in such vast quantities that it became the dominant feedstock for animals, including those which were not biologically adapted for it. Excess corn was processed into corn syrup, and later fuel for cars. The family farm was replaced by giant mega-farms. The food industry deliberately engineered "hyper-palatable" foods designed to stoke our evolutionary "bliss point" using salt, fat, and sugar. We no longer processed food to make its nutrients more bioavailable to us, but to encourage overconsumption.
One of the best descriptions of this historical change comes from Richard Manning's indispensable book, Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization (not to be confused with the book by James Scott). Manning describes the change from growing food for subsistence to growing food for export and profit:
There is a distinction to be made between what I have called agriculture and simply growing food. Call the latter farming, a distinction that still has its problems, though it will serve for a first cut. The difference is that the goal of agriculture is not feeding people, but the accumulation of wealth. What agriculture grows is not food but commodities, grain not to eat but to store, trade, and process.
Consider the range of plants humans consume, the hundreds of species. That's food. Consider that two-thirds of our calories come from wheat, rice, and maize. Add sugar and you have a nearly complete picture of commodities. It is an oversimplification, but a useful one, to assert that these commodities have a fundamental and key distinction from the rest of food: they are storable and interchangeable and close to currency in their liquidity: in fact, they are traded in markets just as currency is. They form the basis for the accumulation of wealth, and have done so for ten thousand years. (AtG: p. 188)
Fast food also conquered the world. KFC became a holiday tradition in Japan and Pizza Hut opened in Red Square. The result was exactly what happened to Europe and America at the turn of the twentieth century. This system produced staggering abundance in terms of pure calories, but this hyperabundance was accompanied by a dramatic deterioration in public health around the world and the introduction of a raft of diseases that had never been seen before in these societies. The Western sickness had spread to cultures around the globe:
Nutrition was transformed and delocalized in accordance with a system that emphasized yield above all else. These changes brought to the “developing” world a dietary pattern that had already led to physical deterioration in modernized countries. The same transition that played out in Victorian Britain now took place throughout the entire periphery.
Price, horrified as he was by the poor teeth of modernizing populations, only saw the beginning of what was to come in the places he studied. In New Caledonia, whose people he had praised for the “very high order” of their physical development, 64 percent of men and 60 percent of women are now overweight or obese. The global obesity rate tripled between 1975 and 2016. It would have already been harmful enough to switch from traditional diets to the late-Victorian one, with its jam and sweetened tea; but that diet seems quaint next to the sugar-packed food and drink of the late twentieth century.
From every corner of the world come reports of this unprecedented health disaster. Health around the world is rapidly deteriorating. The evidence is overwhelming that everywhere the Western diet goes, chronic diseases follow. It far outstrips any famine. Yet these eating patterns are spreading everywhere thanks to ruthless economic incentives. Cancers, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, depression, acne, autoimmune disorders, digestive problems, arthritis, musculoskeletal issues, dementia, asthma, food allergies, and many other disorders are spreading like wildfire. The only possible conclusion is that the modern diet is poisoning the planet.
And the dire health consequences are only matched by the parallel environmental destruction, including the destruction of entire ecosystems which took countless millennia to develop. The amount of nitrogen in the environment has already exceeded safe limits. Insecticides are killing insects which are critical to many ecosystems. Modern agriculture is even altering the composition of the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. It’s staggering in its cupidity: a food system that is not only slowly poisoning us, but also killing the planet on which we all depend. For-profit food making ever more customers for for-profit medicine on a global scale. Thus, as you can see the article’s title is not hyperbolic in the least—if anything it’s tame.
What It Has Done To Us
The author lists a litany of health problems that this has caused. Perhaps the most sobering is this recent statistic: More than half (53.8 percent) of young U.S. adults suffer from a chronic health condition. Why is everyone not losing their minds over this? And, just to be clear, this is adults in the prime of their lives between ages 18 and 34, so we can't even use the bogus excuse of "people didn't use to live long enough to get these disorders." Remarkably, nearly 1 in 4 has multiple chronic health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression.
We've already seen the effects modern diets have on our teeth and jaws (which are irreversible). The author lists several others, including:
Puberty is happening earlier for both boys and girls. The onset of menses has fallen just since the 1970s from age fifteen to age twelve for girls. The reason for this change and its reproductive health consequences are still not well understood.
Acne is considered a teenage disease, but acne is nonexistent in hunter-gatherer populations. This is not due genetics: when hunter-gatherers move to cities and eat industrial diets they develop the same problems with acne.
Allergies are epidemic. In fact, researchers are currently looking at giving people a pill with the bacteria from raw milk (along with farm dust) to stave off allergies.
Nearsightedness is epidemic. While not due to diet, it is due to modern lifestyles: it's pretty much certain that insufficient exposure to sunlight causes the eye shape to become distorted. I've been seeing eyeglasses on younger and younger children, and even babies!
There has been much attention paid lately to declining sperm counts, but fertility issues are affecting both sexes. This means that modern diets are not only making us unhealthy but literally threatening our very ability to reproduce! Modern diets have been implicated as a major cause of lower testosterone and lower-quality sperm.
All sorts of cancers are connected to diet. The most recent is the connection of colorectal cancer to highly processed foods.
A recent study linked the consumption of ultraprocessed food to cognitive decline. People in Brazil who consumed more than 20% of daily calories from processed foods had a 28% faster decline in global cognition and a 25% faster decline in executive functioning compared to people who ate less than 20%.
Americans are actually becoming shorter relative to the rest of the world, and this has been blamed on the excessive intake of low-quality calories.
Digestive issues and autoimmune disorders are rampant. These diseases cause the immune system to attack the body's own cells as if they were foreign invaders.
The author connects many these disorders to the loss of symbiotic bacteria that formerly sustained human health, including the epidemic of mental health conditions and mood disorders. It may even be affecting our intelligence! I find this fact interesting given just how important fermentation has traditionally been to make foods edible for consumption according to Eat Like a Human:
The destruction of the old agricultural order has also severed modern humans from the foods and environments in which we acquire our natural gut microbiome as children—a crucial process for proper immune system functioning. We are only now beginning to understand the microbiome, and its depletion, but the implications are clear: in losing our microbiomes, we are losing an entire organ. In addition to the inability to digest certain foods, microbiome loss has led to complex second-order effects, such as immune system maladaptation. This likely plays a role in the explosion of various unrelated chronic diseases—from Crohn’s disease to diabetes—seen since the beginning of the twentieth century, and accelerating in the last 50 years…
Microbiome depletion is likely linked to the growth in mental disorders over the last few decades: researchers have increasingly focused on the “gut-brain axis” and its relationship to mental health. There is substantial evidence that the remarkable increase in depression and anxiety over the last few decades might not just be a product of loosening interpersonal bonds, but also a reverberation of these widespread physiological problems.
Common deficiencies in minerals like magnesium, for instance, have been linked to depression and anxiety in women; a number of studies have found a connection between low intakes of Omega-3 fatty acids and depression and bipolar disorder, on both the individual and population levels. Even rats exhibit some link between anhedonia and unhealthy diets. The soft decline in IQ in several Western nations over the last few decades—the reversal of the famous “Flynn effect,” seemingly linked to environmental and not genetic factors—may also implicate worsening health and nutrition.
Taken all together, and we can't help but see an ongoing cataclysmic simultaneous destruction of both the world's physical and mental health along with the natural world. We are quite literally “civilizing ourselves to death,” as Christopher Ryan put it. As Bill Schindler noted, we are the first generation in history were it’s even possible to be both obese and malnourished at the same time. The author concludes:
In this historical context, the “nutrition transition” of the last two centuries begins to look more like a dietary apocalypse. It represents the extirpation of traditional, local foodways across the world in favor of an inflammatory, nutrient-poor diet of processed foods, with catastrophic consequences for human health.
What to Do
The implications of this are staggering. As is required in an article like this, some weak tea solutions are offered by the author, and they are worth reading, but, as usual, I am pessimistic. The scale of the problem, and the interlocking incentives, are just too great to overcome. It feels like slapping a band-aid on a gaping mortal wound.
One thing that won't work, I'm convinced, is bullying and shaming individuals, which is the primary approach we’ve taken here in the United States. It's just another way for the successful to look down on the less fortunate and convince themselves of their own virtue and superiority. In fact, a vast health chasm has opened up between the wealthy and the everyone else, with lifespans dramatically diverging as the author describes:
America’s rich have, at great expense, acquired a degree of relative immunity from the health disaster. Wealthy neighborhoods are dotted with health-food stores, “slow food” restaurants, and farmers’ markets; the new elite diets like paleo and veganism, have, for all their cloying moralism, a similar function of shielding those who can afford them. Modern people can still have the type of non-poisonous diet ancestors of the year 1850 might have eaten; it just entails a sharp upfront cost.
The simple fact that whole, organic food is expensive creates a class divide in health that is severe enough to be visible in the geography of American cities: the disparity in life expectancy between the Roxbury and Beacon Hill neighborhoods of Boston, for instance, is now about as large as the gap between El Salvador and Finland—with the poorest sub-neighborhoods of Roxbury, like Egleston Square, reporting life expectancies lower than those of Haiti or Liberia.
So I won't offer much in the way of solutions; I take it my readership can come up with their own. But I will make a few observations. I feel like issues like this one are the reason why those who have the burden of knowing (like you and I) tend to be eager for the collapse of this current system and its replacement root-and-branch with something else. A lot of people are suffering and they don’t know why, nor what to do about it. They are trapped in what the late Joe Bageant called “the Hologram” and the only way out that they can see is bringing the whole system crashing down. Education is the key for making that a constructive process rather than a destructive one.
I would also argue that the utter failure of the medical profession to come to terms with what is happening to our bodies and brains, or to even provide a coherent explanation as to why it is happening, has caused a profound mistrust of doctors and the medical system in general. That credibility gap has unfortunately led to all sorts of quackery and conspiracy theories which dismiss even the legitimate benefits of modern medicine (for example, vaccines and the suppression of infant mortality) and the desperate turn to bogus alternatives (like supplements and homeopathy). Allopathic medicine has insisted on obscuring and ignoring all of the above information in favor of treating—rather than preventing or curing—the conditions that increasingly ail us in modern civilization (which also happens to be more profitable). You don’t have to be an antivaxxer to understand why so many people legitimately don’t trust the doctors and the medical profession in the face of this ongoing health catastrophe.
The modern food system is utterly dependent on fossil fuels. Richard Manning covered this in his epic article The Oil We Eat (another of the internet’s greatest hits). As the world’s supply of fossil fuels dwindles, we may paradoxically become healthier, much like the people of Cuba when they were cut off from fossil fuels after the fall of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s life expectancy now exceeds that of the U.S. by three years). That process won't be a quick one, instead unfolding over a very long period of time, but I believe it has already begun. The change has to start now, with small steps. The tearing down of the toxic global corporate food system and its replacement with something healthier and more local gives us a reason to be optimistic, despite the hardship and pain this will entail for many people around the world in the coming years.
For years I've read encouraging stories of activists who are attempting to change the food system for the better, often at the grass-roots level—the slow food movement, for example, or community gardens. This needs to continue. Maybe instead of “chop wood, carry water,” the answer is, “bake bread, ferment vegetables.” Then, perhaps someday, humanity may finally be able to reclaim the vigorous health that Weston Price saw among traditional peoples all over the world as its lost birthright.
This is particularly ironic given that "dentistry" is one of the top things people list as the benefits of modern civilization.
As far as I can tell, this is why American Universities—uniquely in the world—are basically sports franchises with teaching and learning as a side hustle. Despite the money this supposedly brings in, American universities are still the most lavishly expensive in the world, in large part due to sports. It might also be why athletes are handed free educations while the rest of us are mired in debt.
Another term for this is shifting baseline syndrome: the heaviest state fifty years ago would be considered among the leanest today.