From Starvation to Obesity: Charting the History of Nutrition in America

Rice Fortification, the Minnesota Starvation Study, and Fast Food

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Although the news today is flooded with reports of rising obesity, America wasn’t always like this. Roberta H. Anding, M.S., takes you on a journey through American’s history of nutrition research, from the calorie to the Minnesota Starvation Study to the supersize menu.

Two burgers on dark background
Since the 1970s, it’s actually the supersized menu of fast food, portion size, that contributes to obesity, not the food itself. Photo by Eugenia Lucasenco / Shutterstock

Nutrition in America’s Early Years

The first known reference to nutrition was by Hippocrates about 2,500 years ago, when he said, “Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food.” This is a brilliant assessment of the role of nutrition in the management and prevention of chronic illnesses.

But in the United States, we’re still really in our infancy. Wilbur Atwater in the late 1800s provided the first foundational information regarding metabolism of food and energy requirements. Throughout his work, he brought attention to the word “calorie,” which is a unit of measure that estimates how much energy is used in the conduction of work or metabolism.

During the first half of the 20th century, the discovery of essential nutrients highlighted the nutritional science here in the United States, as well as abroad. Vitamins C and D were discovered.

In 1912, Casmir Funk proposed what he called the “vital amine theory” as a cure for most common nutritional diseases, most notably beri beri. Amine is part of a protein molecule, and Funk believed that a vital or essential amine or a protein was the missing compound in white rice. 

White rice was lacking what he called “thiamine,” which we now know as a B vitamin, and that was the cause of heart failure and beri beri. The milling of brown rice caused the removal of the bran, which was an excellent source of this B vitamin. 

So in Funk’s discovery, he learned that taking off that outer layer of bran really decreased the nutritional value of food, though he thought it was a protein. Thiamine is now added to white rice as part of fortification.

In the early 1930s, William Cumming Rose made major contributions in the area of protein metabolism and the requirements of protein. 

“I have to tell you, in my dealing with athletes, the big challenge oftentimes with athletes is getting them to realize that when William Cumming Rose made landmark contributions in how much protein we require, he never said more was better,” Professor Anding said.

“He never said eat all the protein that you want. He actually gave us boundaries of protein requirements that still, in this day and age, we are attempting to step over, particularly in the athletic and bodybuilding world.”

Minnesota Starvation Study

Another landmark work in the history of nutrition research was Ancel Keys’ study on starvation: the Minnesota Starvation Study. In this day and age, the study would never be approved by any research group or institutional review board because it is unethical. 

Keys took conscientious objectors of World War II—men who, for religious reasons, did not want to fight—brought them voluntarily into a research facility, and had them drop about 25 percent of their body weight. These were men of normal weight to begin with.

He found that in individuals who significantly reduced their calories, the body adapted. It slowed down its metabolic machinery, and demonstrated that metabolism—the amount of calories burned at rest—could be significantly impacted. 

Their heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure went down. Today, individuals with anorexia nervosa reveal the exact same medical findings that Keys helped us to understand in the mid-1940s.

What Keys also found was that when you reduce calories significantly, you have changes in your mental status, experiencing irritability, confusion, and inability to focus. These young men became socially isolated. 

They weren’t interested in being with their wives and girlfriends anymore or playing cards. All they were interested in were recipes and cutting out pictures of food in magazines. Often, they’d cut up their food in lots of pieces, move the food around their plate, and become so focused on the event of food that it excluded other things.

These same behaviors can be seen in young women and men today with anorexia nervosa.

History of Fast Food

The 1950s were signaled by the advent of fast food. Now, fast food often gets a bad reputation. We think fast food alone is responsible for the increase in obesity that we see in our country. 

When McDonald’s was founded in 1954, you could order a hamburger, french fries, and a soft drink for around 700 calories. Today a fast food meal—if you supersize it—is 2,000 calories. Therefore, it’s the increase in portion sizes we’ve seen since the 1970s that is responsible for the rise of obesity rather than fast food itself.

If we look from Keys’ study and through the 1950s with the advent of fast food, we see a shift from nutritional deficiency diseases to diseases of nutritional excess, and that has been the focus of nutritional science since the 1970s. Today, we are most interested in preventing and managing heart disease and diabetes. 

It has been estimated that a child born in the year 2000 has a one-in-three chance of being diagnosed with diabetes. While type 2 diabetes is typically viewed as adult diabetes, we’re now seeing diagnoses in children at younger and younger ages. 

The good news is that diet and exercise can really help in the management of chronic illness. This is particularly true for nutritional excess, or overeating.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.