How Did We Get Here?

Americans' health has worsened dramatically in the last several decades, with major diseases striking people at younger and younger ages. Type 2 diabetes now strikes teenagers as well as the middle-aged, breast cancer hits women in their 20s and 30s rather than being a disease of postmenopausal women, and the allergies and obesity have sky rocketed. For citations documenting this, click here. What happened? Why did our health deteriorate so terribly in the span of these decades?

Many things changed when we entered World War II. Food rationing was necessary to supply the military with food, which created changes both good and bad. A positive change was the advent of Victory Gardens that encouraged many people to grow their own vegetables. However, I remember my parents describing a change that, in retrospect, we know was terrible for health. With most of the butter going to the military, the substitute was a stick of rubbery white oleomargarine which came with a little packet of yellow coloring that could be kneaded into the substance if you wanted it to look more like butter. The slogan, "Better living through chemistry," also was coined about that time. In the 1950s, TV made us more sedentary than in previous years. That problem was made more "weighty" by the birth of fast food franchises in the mid-1950s. Less cooking was done at home, so processed foods became a major part of most people's diets. Finally, as small family farms were replaced by agribusiness, changes occurred in farming methods and animal husbandry.

Changes in Our Diet

How did the standard American diet become so unhealthy? Profit motives were part of the change. Today, corn and soy are in almost all commercially-made foods because they are inexpensive. Trans fats do not go rancid, so it is economically advantageous to use them for whatever fat is in a processed food to extend the shelf life of the food almost indefinitely. Profit is a large part of why cattle and chickens are raised by current methods. Genetically modified foods (GMOs) with their patented seeds bring in untold profit for Monsanto in sales of both seeds and pesticides without, in my opinion, any regard for the health of our planet or the people living on it.

Tastes have also changed. Sugar consumption began rising in the early 1800s and was 11 pounds per person per year in 1830. By the year 2000, it had risen to 150 pounds per person per year. Corn syrup consumption has also skyrocketed and is in many processed foods. One of the largest dietary sources of sugar or corn syrup is soft drinks, and their manufacturers are determined to keep Americans drinking sodas. They pay for research to be done on how "energy balance," not sugar, is the cause of obesity, and have connections with the CDC to support them. [5] It is indeed true that eating significantly more than you are burning in exercise will cause weight gain, but sugar causes high insulin which leads to depositing fat even if you are not eating too much. High insulin also causes hunger, which drives you to eat more. High fructose corn syrup, with its higher glycemic index, is even worse for us than sugar. Click here for the details of why high insulin levels caused by sugary foods are the most important cause of obesity, not calories.

Sugar, which the body makes into glucose, is the preferred food of cancer cells where it is used rapidly and instead of other foods. The way positron emission tomography (PET) scans detect cancer is by infusing the patient with radioactively labeled glucose and then scanning for areas where it is taken up in large amounts. Both sugar and the ever-present white flour in baked goods stimulate a large release of insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF). Both hormones promote inflammation which stimulates the growth of cancer cells. IGF also increases the capacity of cancer cells to invade other tissues. [6]

The second change in our diets was in the types of fat we eat. We now eat too much inflammation-promoting omega-6 fat and very little omega-3 fat. This is due to the preponderance of corn, soy and sunflower oils in processed foods as well as to the way animals are now raised. Beginning in the 1950s, cattle were no longer raised on pasturelands, but instead were fed corn, wheat and soy in feedlots. Chickens no longer pecked at bugs and seeds but were fed an unnatural diet of corn. As a result, the ratio of omega-3 to omega 6 fatty acids in the body fat of these animals has changed from a healthy 1 to 1 ratio to between 1 to 15 and 1 to 40. Feeding animals linseed as 5% of their diet improves the ratio of fatty acids but is rarely done. [7]

An additional change in the fat we eat was hydrogenation, which makes the omega-6 oils usually used even more pro-inflammatory. Also, hydrogenated fats contain trans- rather than cis-bonds and thus are stiff when incorporated in cell membranes. This does not allow the cell membranes to function normally.

The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood showed that eating fast food three or more times a week resulted in more asthma, eczema, and rhinitis. Trans fats also have been connected to an increase in asthma in other research. [8]

Another change in our food is the widespread use of inorganic phosphate compounds which are used to improve the texture of processed foods and in sodas. These compounds promote the growth of non-small-cell lung cancer. They are found in a wide variety of foods such as processed cheese, lunch meats, pastries, fruit syrups, ice cream, frozen pizza and fish sticks. The amount of inorganic phosphates Americans consume has more than doubled since the 1990s. [9]

Cattle are now given estrogenic hormones and rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) to increase milk production. Treatment with rBGH causes the cows to produce IGF which is excreted in their milk and not destroyed by pasteurization. As discussed above, our endogenous IGF released after eating sugar stimulates cancer cells. [10] Monsanto's rBGH drug, PosilacTM, poses even more of a problem. The FDA approved this drug in 1993. [11] A 1996 International Journal of Health Services report said that milk from cows treated with rBGH contained ten times the level of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1) as milk from untreated cows, and more recent reports say it is as much as twenty times higher. [12] In 1998, the British medical journal The Lancet reported that women with small increases in levels of IGF-1 were up to seven times more likely to get breast cancer at a pre-menopausal age. [13] This timeline of events since the introduction of rBGH suggests a reason for the increased incidence of breast cancer in young women. To keep us guessing (or possibly to try to deceive us?), rBGH is now going by the name recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST).

An even more frightening change in our food supply is the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which are made in a laboratory by inserting genes from a totally unrelated organism. GMO plants are usually engineered to be resistant to the herbicide RoundupTM which is used to kill weeds. Thus high amounts of RoundupTM can be used on crops without killing the crop. In addition to the pesticides that remain on these foods, GMOs are recognized by the body as foreign. The timeline of events of the last 20 years suggests consuming GMOs result in more food allergies. (Click here for details about the timeline). Several states have tried to pass or have passed initiatives to require labeling of GMO foods, but they have been struck down by the expenditure of millions of dollars from Monsanto to thwart allowing shoppers knowledge of whether a food contains GMOs. [14] Yet, although there has been no testing done, the FDA insists that GMO foods are safe. The "safety" of RoundupTM is also being protected as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has acted to stall a toxicology review of the herbicide by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC ). [15] However, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer declared glyphosate (the chemical name of the active ingredient in RoundupTM) a probable human carcinogen. [16]

Environmental Problems: Exposure to a Myriad of Chemicals

Changes in our environment have also affected our health negatively. In the 1960s, millions of barrels of oil were being pumped from the ground, making gas and petroleum products cheap and available for use in new profitable ventures. [17] Everyone owned or wanted to own an automobile. The emissions from vehicles and factories caused air pollution, which not only increases inflammation in general, but it increases airway response to allergens and worsens asthma. [18]

The abundance of petroleum also led to the development of many new chemical products such as plastics, pesticides, herbicides, cleaning products, building products, synthetic perfumes, etc. Since 1940, more than 100,000 new chemicals have been used in consumer products. [19] Unfortunately, many of these are unregulated and untested.

The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer tracks potentially carcinogenic substances in the environment. Of the 900 substances they have tested, only one was recognized as non-carcinogenic. Just under half, 402, are known or probable carcinogens, many of which are still widely used. 497 have not been classified yet. In 1995 the National Toxicology Program carried out animal trials. Their conclusion was that we are regularly exposed to over 3,750 carcinogens. Although we may be getting a dose of each that is considered non-problematic, their combined toxicity is thirty seven to seventy five times the dose considered toxic to animals. [20]

A most worrisome group of environmental toxins is those that disrupt hormones. They trigger inflammation and amplify allergic responses. [21] They are found in herbicides, pesticides, plastics, household products and beauty products. The most commonly known of these is bisphenol A (BPA) which promotes the progression of several cancers. It also blocks the effects of some chemotherapeutic drugs. [22]

Another group of endocrine disruptors, the phthalates, has been linked to allergies. Diethyl hexyl phthalates (DHEPs) cause wheezing in children. They are in adhesives, coatings, toys, childcare products, and cosmetics. Butyl benzyl phthalates, associated with asthma, rhinitis and eczema, are found in plastics, floor tile, and carpet backings. [23]

Formaldehyde is emitted from wood products such as plywood and particle board, floor finishes, paint, wallpaper, new fabrics, laser printers, copiers and personal computers. [24] Exposure to it is associated with increased sensitization to common airborne allergens. A 1999 study published in the journal Allergy found that the increase in allergies and asthma over the last few decades has paralleled the use of formaldehyde containing products in homes. [25]

The slogan I heard as a child, "Better living through chemistry," was untrue. We should support environmental activism and do whatever we can to encourage change, but it is not likely to happen quickly because of the economic forces at work. The one thing we can do about chemicals is wisely select what we allow in our homes. Use unscented natural cleaning products, wash all new clothing and fabric items thoroughly and with a pre-soak before you wear them, and buy solid wood furniture rather than particle board furniture. If that is too pricey, explore your options in antique stores, flea markets, etc. Also consider purchasing unfinished solid wood furniture and finishing it yourself with non-toxic coating or paint from a source such as American Formulating and Manufacturing. (AFM Safecoat products). Click here to learn more about this.

Lifestyle Changes

Our lifestyles have also changed since the 1940s. The rise in automobiles, contributed to a more sedentary lifestyle. Instead of walking, or at least walking to a bus stop, everyone began driving. Our occupations now are also sedentary, many involve sitting in front of a computer all day. Television became a major consumer of time in some families. Therefore, sedentary habits and lack of exercise have contributed to obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.

Lack of exercise contributes to the development of cancer. Only 14% of active Americans will get cancer, much lower than the 42% national average. [26] My oncologist was pleased at my first office visit to hear that I take at least one, sometimes two, walks every day. You don't have to do a lot of intense exercise to reap major benefits. Gardening gives me even more exercise. Click here for more about exercise.

The decline of gardening, rise of automobiles and thus less walking have affected our health in an additional way. Because we spend less time in the sun than our great-grandparents did, vitamin D deficiency is common and rising.

Over ten years ago my allergy doctor learned that low vitamin D levels are associated with leaking of the tight junctions between intestinal cells [27] thus allowing food fragments to escape into the bloodstream. Because this contributes to food allergies, he suggested I have a blood test for vitamin D. My blood level was 7 ng/ml, far below the 50 ng/ml that he considered optimal.

In addition to food allergies, low vitamin D levels are associated with bone health issues, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cancer, inflammatory diseases, infections [28], and increased all-cause mortality. [29] Low vitamin D increases the risk of developing cancer as well as decreasing survival rates, so cancer patients should have blood levels checked and supplement if needed.

The articles cited below recommend the blood level of vitamin D be 30 ng/ml or above. For cancer prevention and general good heath, supplementing with vitamin D3, the active form, is recommended if blood testing shows a level below 30ng/ml. Then the blood level should be monitored at least until the dosage required for maintaining an optimal level has been determined. Vitamin D supplementation is a wise step for preventing and addressing many health problems.

There is no way to turn the clock back, but we can personally enjoy regular exercise, carefully read labels on the commercially made foods we buy, and do as much cooking from scratch as we can. Knowing how we as a nation reached our current state of health helps us understand what we can do to regain our health. Now, and for the future, we need to get back to basics and take charge of our diets and health.


[1] Incidence of Diagnosed Diabetes per 1,000 Population Aged 18-79 Years, by Age, United States, 1980-2014.
[2] Servan-Schreiber, David, MD, PhD. AntiCancer: A New Way of Life. (New York: Penguin Group, Inc., 2009), 62.
[3] Galland, Leo, MD. The Allergy Solution. (Carlsbad, CA, Hay House, Inc., 2016), 19.
[4] Kash, Peter Morgan, and Jay Lombard, DO. Freedom from Disease. (New York, NY, St. Martin's Press, 2008), xiv.
[5] Gillam,Carey. More Coca-Cola Ties Seen Inside U.S. Centers For Disease Control. August 1, 2016.
[6] Apple, Sam. May 26, 2016. An Old Idea Revived: Starve Cancer to Death.
[7] Servan-Schreiber, 72-73.
[8] Galland, Leo, MD. The Allergy Solution. (Carlsbad, CA, Hay House, Inc., 2016), 24.
[9] Servan-Schreiber, 86.
[10] Servan-Schreiber, 75.
[11] O'Brien, Robyn. The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It. (New York, Broadway Books, Random House, 2009), 98.
[12] O'Brien, 102.
[13] O'Brien, 102.
[14] Chow, Lorraine. 8 Battleground States in the GMO Food Labeling Fight.
[15] Gilliam, Carey. Collusion or Coincidence? Records Show EPA Efforts to Slow Herbicide Review Came in Coordination With Monsanto. Huffington Post, August 17, 2017,
[16] International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organizaion. Evaluation of Five Organophosphates Insecticides and Herbicides. IARC Monographs Volume 112, March 20, 2015.
[17] Galland, 25.
[18] Galland, 33.
[19] Galland, 26.
[20] Servan-Schreiber, 83.
[21] Galland, 33-34.
[22] Servan-Schreiber, 83.
[23] Galland, 84.
[24] Servan-Schreiber, 86.
[25] Galland, 36-37.
[26] Quillin, Patrick, PhD, RD, CNS. Beating Cancer with Nutrition, (Carlsbad, CA,, Nutrition Times Press, 2005), 49.
[27] Sun, Jun. "Vitamin D and mucosal immune function." Curr Opin Gastroenterol. 2010 Nov; 26(6): 591-595.
[28] Pilz S, Kienreich K, Tomaschitz A, Ritz E, et al. "Vitamin D and cancer mortality: systematic review of prospective epidemiological studies." Anticancer Agents Med Chem. 2013 Jan;13(1):107-17.
  Pilz S, Tomaschitz A, Obermayer-Pietsch B, et al. "Epidemiology of vitamin D insufficiency and cancer mortality." Anticancer Res. 2009 Sep;29(9):3699-704.
[29] Whiteman, Honor. Study links vitamin D deficiency to 'all-cause mortality and cancer prognosis.'" Medical News Today, June 18, 2014.