Kevin D. Hall

From dearth to excess: the rise of obesity in an ultra-processed food system

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology

More people now have obesity than suffer from starvation thanks to our modern food system. Agriculture was transformed over the 20th century by a variety of technological advancements that relied heavily on fossil fuels. In the United States, government policies and economic incentives led to surplus production of cheap inputs to processed food industries that produced a wide variety of heavily marketed, convenient, rewarding, timesaving, and relatively inexpensive ultra-processed foods. The energy available in the food supply increased by much more than the population needs, albeit with large inequities in nutrition security. While most of the rise in per capita food availability during the late 20th and early 21st centuries in the United States resulted in increased food waste, a variety of mechanisms have been proposed by which changes in the increasingly ultra-processed food environment resulted in excess energy intake disproportionately in people genetically susceptible to obesity. As populations continue to grow, substantial investments in coordinated nutrition and agricultural research are needed to transform our current food system to one that relies less on fossil fuels, preserves biodiversity, ensures environmental health, and provides equitable access to affordable, safe and nutritious food that reduces the prevalence of chronic diet-related diseases like obesity. This article is part of a discussion meeting issue ‘Causes of obesity: theories, conjectures and evidence (Part I)’.

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