Tonight is the kickoff of America’s two-month festival of gluttony:   first Halloween, then Thanksgiving, then the extended food coma that has become the Hannukah-Christmas-New Year season.

As is now my holiday custom, I plan on packing on about 5-7 pounds over the next 2 months, then fretting about my growing girth, then vowing to eat better and get more exercise in the New Year, with mixed results. 

I know, I know, it’s a vicious cycle—I should just eat more healthfully to begin with.  But that’s hard:  sugars and fats have become so cheap and abundant that they’re virtually impossible to avoid.  Treats aren’t a novelty any more—they’re the norm.  And even if I can steel my will to resist 9 out of 10 temptations, there’s still way too many opportunities to fall off the wagon.

Growing girth is just one symptom of a food system that’s fundamentally out of whack.  We’ve created a web of subsidies—everything from agricultural research to tax breaks to direct payments to farmers —  that favor empty calories (e.g., corn syrup, vegetable oils, animal fats) over healthier foods, like fruits and vegetables.

A month or so ago, I got to wondering how just how many food calories the nation produces, compared with how many we need to keep our bodies fueled.  As it turns out, we produce vastly more food calories than we could ever use ourselves. Vastly.

On average, a person can survive quite well on a diet of 2,000 calories per day—maybe a smidge more or less, depending on your weight and level of activity.  But the US corn harvest alone produces the equivalent of 13,500 calories per US resident per day—almost 7 times more calories than we need.  And soybeans add an additional 2,600 calories per person per day. 

Add in wheat, rice, fruits, veggies, and a few minor crops, and we’re talking about an agricultural system that produces at least nine times as many calories from plants as our bodies can healthfully use. (And that doesn’t even count seafood, grass-fed beef, milk from pasture cattle, etc.—just food crops.)

That’s a lot of calories. 

Obviously, very little of that food is actually intended for direct human consumption.  Most goes to feed animals, a lot of it goes to ethanol, some gets sent overseas or used in industry.

Still, given how much we produce, it’s no wonder that we’re surrounded by sugars and fats. Spurred on by misguided subsidies, our agricultural system has become so phenomenally productive that it’s actually a hazard to our health.