SAN MARCOS, TEXAS — Americans aren't just overweight. They're fat. More than 30 percent of us weigh at least 30 pounds more than we should, according to the National Institute of Health. Statistics show that debilitating conditions medically related to obesity have made it the leading cause of preventable death - even ahead of smoking. The solution to our expanding waistline seems basic enough - eat less, eat healthier, exercise regularly.
Were it only so simple. America has enjoyed two centuries of growing material abundance while the nature of our work has become increasingly sedentary. The powerful convergence of these trends - a perfect storm for the expanding belly - demands that nothing less than a fundamental shift in the way that we produce and consume food will trim our collective gut. And given the chances of that happening, the airline industry, for one, should just go ahead and widen those passenger seats - our flab seems to be going nowhere.
How Americans have eaten and worked throughout history puts the problem in pessimistic perspective. For the earliest European settlers, extra fat was a desired but unachievable goal. Ignoring the native American ways of life, the new settlers gushed over the natural resources in their midst and, with those resources, built a society. Clearing fields, planting gardens, digging fences, and domesticating livestock produced unprecedented material abundance. Americans ate more than their European counterparts - 4,500 calories a day for a typical farmer was not uncommon. The considerable toil that went into that production, however, kept our forebears in lean shape. Anyone who actively maintains a vegetable garden today, or has had the unfortunate experience of removing a tree stump, will understand.
The vast American frontier allowed 19th-century pioneers to follow their ancestors' rugged example. Americans living in the increasingly crowded East took Horace Greeley's timely advice and went West. The soil was drier (OK, it was a desert) and the elements less forgiving, but these families tilled new land, grazed new breeds, grew heartier flora, and generally enjoyed a surfeit of food. They consumed the goods that doctors today insist we avoid and remained thin. As far as waistlines go, the frontier was the 19th century's version of a treadmill.
That treadmill continued to spin even after 1890, when Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier closed and urbanization transformed the Northeast into an industrial empire. Commercial farming, mining, and ranching kept most Americans working hard enough to burn the calories that today's Atkins dieters are desperate to shed. While the corporate fat-cat's belly began to bulge back East, settlers west of the Mississippi sought to replicate that Carnegie-like profile but failed to achieve it. After all, flooding rivers frequently forced them to live at least 200 yards away from the water and, well, have you ever hauled a bucket of water across two football fields? I imagine it works better than a Stairmaster.
Twentieth century suburbanization was a permanent turning point in this critical equation between work and food. The treadmill came to a gradual halt as Americans stopped producing their own food, put on a suit rather than overalls, and drove to work.
For the first time in American history, the vast majority of Americans lived in homes they didn't build, worked inside, and consumed food made by an agribusiness employing foreign labor. Never before had food been more abundant. Never before had Americans physically toiled so little to make it available. The outcome was unavoidable: We started to get fat.
And now we've normalized it. When America became unhinged from its food sources, we embraced consumption as a cultural value. Our waistlines, as a result, haven't been the only thing to expand.
The auto industry fattens itself on Americans who eagerly drive gas-guzzling SUVs that are practically larger than a colonial American home. The housing market is gorging on the construction of homes that have swelled to several thousand square feet - and, in too many cases, tens-of-thousands of square feet. Retailers have made a mockery of the mom-and-pop establishment with "big box stores" measured by the acre. Like it or not, we've become a supersized nation of consumers that has made "bigness" as American as, well, apple pie.
Trends, of course, can be resisted. But it takes imagination. Perhaps our best hope of cleaning up the mess we've made rests in that small plot of unused space in the backyard, the community garden, or even on the apartment roof.
As Americans become more interested in the food they eat, as notions such as "Frankenfoods" become more mainstream public concerns, and as "slow food" becomes a desirable goal, home gardening is burgeoning as not only a leisure activity but as a way to provide our own food.
As of yet, the trend is still in its infancy. But with studies showing that 45 minutes of gardening is equal to 30 minutes of rigorous aerobic exercise, the tide of culinary history may be turning. Working a small plot of tomatoes, peppers, and squash might seem like an insignificant harbinger but with the benefits of healthier food and smaller waistlines, one can only hope that it's a harbinger that foreshadows, well, a Presidential Vegetable Garden.
• James E. McWilliams is assistant professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos, and author of a new book on the history of American food.