Diet, Lifestyle and Health Care Cost

by Catherine Haug

It may surprise you to learn that certain diseases or health conditions that are now commonplace, were practically unheard of until the early 1900s. This includes:

  • diabetes
  • clogged arteries (abnormal cholesterol and triglycerides)
  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • obesity
  • periodontal disease

In fact, type-1 diabetes was quite rare, and type-2 diabetes was unheard of. Yes, people did have heart attacks, but it was not the frequent killer, and at such young ages, that it is today.  Even cancer was not as common then as now.

It is true that diagnosis was not as sophisticated back then, but that doesn’t account for the huge discrepancy in the number of cases then and now. The first marked increase in diagnosis of diabetes and heart disease began in the 1930s. In 1936, type-2 diabetes was identified, but was still rare. And it was still rare in the 1950s when I was a child; only the elderly seemed susceptible to diabetes and heart disease. But today, nearly everyone knows someone with one or both of these killers, and they now impact teenagers.

What’s going on? What was happening in the 1930s and continues today, that could explain this?

First, it’s important to know that back then, all the conditions listed above were recognized to be part of the same disease. But no one knew why they were related, nor what caused this malady.

Dietary Changes

One of the first things to jump out to investigators was the changes occurring in the American diet that began with the migration of people from rural farms to the large urban areas. People who once raised their own food now depended upon others to provide this necessity. And because refrigeration was not common, these foods had to be processed and canned to preserve them; fresh foods were increasingly rare.

Here’s a short list of newfangled foods that resulted from this shift in American lifestyle, and are now considered suspect in causing the rise of modern diseases:

White flour: Whole grains easily became rancid, especially after large-scale grinding into flour (because of the unsaturated fats in the germ), so processors developed ways to strip off the healthful bran and germ before grinding the grains to make white flour. The resultant product was devoid of most minerals and vitamins; producers eventually added synthetic versions to make “enriched white flour,” but this was nutritionally inferior to the whole grain.

Margarine was invented. At the time, scientists thought they were turning vegetable fats into butter-like saturated fats, but we know now they instead made deadly trans-fats. At first people were loath to buy this newfangled food, but the food shortages of WWII made people look again at cheap and abundant margarine. By the 1960s, margarine had supplanted butter in most homes.

Breakfast cereals: Dr. Kellog accidentally invented corn flakes in the late 1800s while treating his patients with a high-grain vegetarian diet. Many other highly processed breakfast cereals quickly followed, made by cooking stale grains at high temperatures and then forcing them under pressure through extrusion devices to form the familiar cereal shapes we know today (flakes, loops, shreds, etc.).

Pre-prepared/pre-packaged meals: In the 1960s, perhaps because of the race for space, people were fascinated by pre-prepared and pre-packaged meals known as TV-dinners and Hamburger Helper. These foods were highly processed and laced with preservatives and flavor enhancers such as MSG to give them a long shelf life and make them palatable.

Collectively, all these highly processed foods lacking in vital nutrients led to increased incidence of disease. And also to the development of processed and synthetic nutritional supplements (vitamins and minerals) to replace the nutrients lost in the food processing. But are these supplements really effective? Can we absorb and use them? Or do they simply create expensive human waste?

Improving health through diet

I believe that if all Americans returned to eating fresh foods prepared at home from  fresh, quality ingredients, instead of packaged and processed foods heated in a microwave or purchased at a walk/drive-through; and if they also got more exercise by maintaining a veggie garden, many of our current health problems would disappear.

This is not an instant solution, as it will take 2-3 generations for the health problems to disappear totally (it has taken 3 generations to get where we are today), but people would feel better within a few weeks of making the change. And this could mean fewer trips to the emergency room.

Of course, there are a few other things that would need to happen that affect quality of diet, including:

  • A return to locally- and organically-grown foods and away from big-ag with its GMO crops, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and mono-culture.
  • A return to locally raised livestock, raised in pasture not on grain (see my post Earth Friendly Livestock Production for more).
  • Avoidance of newfangled foods such as high-fructose corn syrup, GMO foods, irradiated foods, and so on.

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