How Did the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions Change Human Diets?


With the advent of the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago, mankind took a giant leap away from two million years of evolutionary adaptation. The Industrial Revolution that started in the late 18th century—about 240 years ago—was yet another watershed event. The Agricultural Revolution marks the end of the Old Stone Age and the start of the Neolithic period. The Neolithic ended four to six thousand years ago, replaced by the Bronze Age (or Iron Age in some areas).


The Agricultural Revolution refers to farming the land on a large scale, and all that entails: gathering and planting seeds, nurturing the soil, breeding plants for desirable traits, storing crops, processing plants to maximize digestibility, domesticating wild animals and enhancing them by selective breeding, setting down roots in one geographic location, etc. The revolution allowed for the expansion of reliable food supplies and an explosion of human populations. Less time was needed for hunting and foraging, allowing for the development of advanced cultures.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, however. We have evidence that human health deteriorated as a result of the revolution. For instance, some populations declined in height and dental health.


The Industrial Revolution starting in the late 18th century brought its own changes to our diet. Progressive industrialization and affluence changed the composition of our “energy foods.” For instance, peasants in poor developing countries derive about 75% of their calories from high-fiber starchy foods. With modernization, fiber-free fats and sugars become the source of 60% of calories. U.S. consumption of cereal fiber decreased by 90% between 1880 and 1976. In addition to lower fiber content, refined wheat products also had fewer vitamins and other micronutrients. Machinery allowed the production of margarine and vegetable oils. Sugar imports and snacking increased in the Western world.

Obesity suddenly became very common in the upper classes of Europe and England toward the end of the 17th century and even more so in the 18th. Weights also increased throughout populations of developed countries. For instance, if we look at U.S. men of average height between the ages of 30 to 34, average weights were 148 lb (66 kg) in 1863, but were up to 170 lb (77 kg) in 1963. Our current obesity epidemic didn’t even start until around 1970.

Let’s look at a few major U.S. diet changes from 1860 to 1975. Energy derived from protein rose from 12% to 14–15%. Energy from fat rose from 25 to 42% of calories. Energy from starches fell from 53 to 22%. Calories from sugar rose from 10 to 24%. Total carbohydrate calories fell from 63 to 46%.

It only takes a few decades to see major changes in a population’s food consumption. For instance, U.S. per capita consumption of salad and cooking oils increased from 21.2 pounds per person in 1980 to 54.3 pounds per person in 2008 (USDA data). I refer to these oils as industrial seed oils, and they include soybean, corn, and sunflower oil. We’re not entirely sure what effect these have on health. Some suspect they are related to obesity, heart disease, and other “diseases of civilization.” Per capita soybean oil consumption in the U.S. increased over a thousand-fold between 1909 and 1999, to 7.4% of total calories. It’s in many of our processed foods. Linoleic acid is a predominant omega-6 fatty acid in seed oils. Linoleic acid consumption increased by 200% in the last century. Thanks to increasing omega-6 fatty acid consumption, the omega-6/omega-3 ratio increased from 5.4:1 to 9.6:1 between 1909 and 2009. (Reference: Blasbalg TL, Hibbeln JR, Ramsden CE, Majchrzak SF, Rawlings RR. “Changes in consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the United States during the 20th century.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 May;93(5):950-62. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.006643. Epub 2011 Mar 2.)

The Industrial Revolution also introduced into our diets large amounts of man-made trans-fats, which are highly detrimental to cardiovascular health. Public outcry has lead to diminishing amounts of dietary trans-fats over the last decade.

An occasional teaspoon of sugar probably won't hurt you

Added sugars: table sugar in coffee, high-fructose corn syrup in ketchup

At his Whole Health Source blog, Dr. Stephan Guyenet and Jeremy Landen produced a graph of U.S. sugar consumption from 1822 to 2005. Dr. Guyenet wrote, “It’s a remarkably straight line, increasing steadily from 6.3 pounds (2.9 kg) per person per year in 1822 to a maximum of 107.7 pounds (49 kg) per person per year in 1999. Wrap your brain around this: in 1822, we ate the amount of added sugar in one 12 ounce can of soda (360 ml) every five days, while today we eat that much sugar every seven hours.” Note that added sugars overwhelmingly supply only one nutrient: pure carbohydrate without vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, protein, fat, etc.


Think about the typical Western or Standard American Diet (SAD) eaten by an adult these days. It provides an average of 2673 calories a day (not accounting for wastage of calories in restaurants; 2250 cals/day is probably a more accurate figure for actual consumption). Added sugars provide 459 of those calories, or 17% of the total. Grains provide 625 calories, or 23% of the total. Most of those sugars and grains are in processed, commercial foods. So added sugars and grains provide 40% of the total calories in the SAD. That’s a huge change from the diet of our prehistoric ancestors. Remember, we need good insulin action to process these carbohydrates, which is a problem for diabetics. Anyone going from the SAD to pure paleo eating will be drastically reducing intake of added sugars and grains, our current major sources of carbohydrate. They’ll be replacing them with foods that generally require less insulin for processing. (Figures are from an April 5, 2011, infographic at Civil Eats:

FUN FACTS! (from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)

  • A typical carbonated soda contains the equivalent of 10 tsp (50 ml) of table sugar.
  • The typical U.S. adult eats 30 tsp (150 ml) daily of added sweeteners and sugars.
  • U.S total grain product consumption was at record lows in the 1970s, at 138 pounds per person. By 2008, grain consumption was up by 45%, to 200 pounds per person.
  • Total caloric sweetener consumption (by dry weight) was 110 pounds per person in the 1950s. By 2000, it was up 39% to 150 pounds.
  • Between 1970 and 2003, consumption of added fats and oils rose by 63%, from 53 to 85 pounds. (How tasty would that be without starches and sugars? Not very.)
  • In 2008, “added fat” calories in the U.S. adult diet were 641 (24% of total calories).

Steve Parker, M.D.

One response to “How Did the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions Change Human Diets?

  1. I think the SAD diet is behind many different medical problems including the dramatic rise in autism and Alzheimer’s. The omega-6/3 ratio is far more important than most Doctors (MDs) even know.