Views of Food Then and Now
As with other living things, people need food in order to survive. As a result, food has always played an important role in human life.
For most of history the problem with food has been its scarcity. Hunger and famine have been a staple of the human condition since the beginning of time. Droughts, insects, disease and war have all been the cause of famine through the ages. War has been especially bad as it often involves the deliberate destruction of the food supply of one's rival as a tool of warfare. During the Punic Wars the ancient Romans not only destroyed the crops of the city state of Carthage but went so far as to sow salt in the ground in order to prevent the Carthaginians from growing food again. In the twentieth century the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin killed millions of Kulaks (Russian peasants who owned their own land before the 1917 Revolution that imposed Communism on Russia), who opposed the forced collectivization of their farms, in the 1930s by means of mass starvation. A few years latter during World War II the Nazi siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) succeeded in cutting off most of the city's food supply causing thousands of deaths and forcing many to survive by eating rats and anything else they could scavage. However, the city held and the Nazis were eventually forced to retreat.
The relative scarcity of food influenced our ideas about it as well. Wasting food was frowned upon until very recently. This was understandable because by wasting food a person could literally be depriving someone else in the household or neighborhood of needed food. This wasn't an abstract concept like today's parent's telling a child not to waste their food because some child in a far off land lacks food. No, in this case the person or persons not getting enough food because of the waste of one were more than likely sitting at the same table. The Fathers of the early Christian Church included gluttony as one of the Seven Deadly Sins in part because consumption over and above one's needs could lead to others not having enough. There was also a cost factor involved with wasting food as, until recently, food was a major part of a household's budget so the wasting of food involved a financial hardship as well.
Because food was generally scarce, obesity was not much of a problem. On the contrary, it was often a status symbol. Among the ancient Romans obesity was a status symbol by which a wealthy person could differentiate themselves from the hungry masses. Being overweight showed the world that you were both wealthy enough to afford a lot of food as well as wealthy enough so as not to have to engage in manual labor which would burn off some of those calories. Look at paintings from the Renaissance and you will notice that many of the people appear overweight by today's standards. Part of the attraction of a heavyset woman was that she gave the appearance of being well fed an healthy and thus, to a potential suitor, in good shape to bear children for him. Similarly, women would be attracted to stout men because such a man gave the appearance of being wealthy enough to eat well and could thus provide well for the woman.
Today the situation is different. Our problem is too much food rather than a lack of food. Famines are practically a thing of the past and most famines in recent times have been the result of war of political actions against enemies of those in power. We are not only able to produce food in greater abundance but, the modern market is able to quickly move food to areas in need. In the early 1990s there were massive floods in the upper Midwestern portion of the U.S. It was spring and this is the heart of the food producing area of the U.S. Millions of acres of land were unable to be planted. While financial losses were great and families were temporarily driven from their homes by the floods, no one in the nation went hungry as a result of this disaster as would have happened in the past.
Despite the apparent over abundance of food the number of people engaged in agriculture in the U.S. has declined drastically from the time we became a nation. At the time of our independence 90% or more of the population was engaged in agriculture. Today this figure is less than ten percent. In the recent past 25% or more of a family's budget in the U.S. was spent on food. Today it is below 15% for most.
Our health problems today are no longer related to starvation and malnutrition. Instead obesity related diseases are the problem. These weren't a problem in the past because most people lacked sufficient food. Even those who could afford sufficient food and were overweight obesity related diseases still were not much of a problem as these illnesses take a long time to develop and generally affect older rather than younger people. In times past the life span of a healthy person was about half of what it is today and most people, even overweight people, had a much greater chance of dying of common bacteria related diseases than of heart disease as is the case today.
While obesity is a problem which must be faced and dealt with by people who wish to remain healthy, it is better than the alternative which is starvation and malnutrition. Today we have the option of saying no to consuming too much food and thus avoid the ill health effects of overeating. In the past all people could hope for was a good harvest so they had a chance to continue living another year.