Fat, Fillyjonk

Fat, genes, and environment

Yesterday, an email landed in my Shapely Prose inbox with the subject line “Question (not a flame or troll I promise!)” These are almost inevitably flames or trolls, so it was with a certain amount of eye-rolling that I opened the message. As it turns out, though, reader Kathryn was not in fact trolling, and had a serious and astute question with an important answer, one that I’d just been thinking should be made explicit on the blog.

Kathryn’s question was about why our weight as a population has changed, if weight is largely genetic. A caveat to my answer: I am not a scientist. My training is in the history and philosophy of science. I understand genetics, I am intimately familiar with Mendel’s life and rediscovery, I’ve had tea with Jim Watson, and I’ve done gel electrophoresis — but I’m not a scientist, I am a writer. Furthermore, this is an informal email to a reader. So I don’t have citations here, and even if I added them, they’d be dredged up through Google-fu and not through encyclopedic knowledge of the literature. I know some of our readers, though, are doctors and biologists and geneticists, and I would love to hear your responses in comments.  (ETA: Here’s a related blog post by the inimitable MissPrism, who is a scientist!)

Kathryn wrote (reprinted with permission):

What is hard for me to understand is the increase in human weight in certain parts of the world. I read so many blogs that purport genetic predisposition to weight. That is all well and good but how has genetics changed so drastically in the past century? I read one argument that compared the increase in weight to the increase in human height.

Auxology studies have shown that human height is not entirely genetic. It has much to do with environment. For example, impoverished North Koreans, on average, are shorter than their South Korean counterparts. Europeans’ average height declined up until the Industrial Revolution, during which general health practices began to improve.

Nutrition, auxology experts say, is a very important factor in population height.

That said, why should population weight be any different? Our environments have changed drastically and, as a result, our average population weight has increased.

Weight increases on the Western world’s scale have not been seen in populations who have not experienced the sudden surplus of fast food, overprocessing, and synthetic ingredients.

Please, if you can explain this to me I would be grateful. I just can’t seem to wrap my head around it.

Nutrition has directly affected height. How could it not be the reason for our recent increase in weight and the present “obesity epidemic”?

I responded (edited slightly, because indulging l’esprit d’escalier is my prerogative as the blogger):

Kathryn, if you’ve read The Triple Helix, you know that environment affects gene expression and genetics affect reaction to environment. Weight predisposition is largely genetic (about 77%, last I heard), while expression is affected by environmental factors — but only within a certain range. Just as a dwarf pea plant with great nutrition won’t rival the height of the tallest pea plants, so environment affects our weights and heights within the range set by our genetics. Both better nutrition and worse nutrition (i.e. more processed and artificial foods) have been available recently, which has affected both height and weight on a population level.

Remember, though, that the sharp increase in “overweight and obesity” far outweighs the actual increase in weight, because of the rewriting of BMI standards in 1998. The main genuine increase in weight, the increase not explained by accounting methods, has been at the highest BMI levels — that is, the very fat have gotten fatter, while the population average has shifted upwards a bit but hasn’t changed drastically. This is consistent with the idea that your genetic predisposition sets your base level and your tendency to gain weight. Most modern people eat modern food, but those who are predisposed to start fat and who have parsimonious metabolisms are going to get fatter off the same diet.

So yes, certainly there’s an environmental component; certainly some people who are predisposed to be larger than average would be less larger than average if they were able to avoid, as you succinctly put it, “fast food, overprocessing, and synthetic ingredients” (which, remember, thin people consume too, because they are very difficult to avoid, and even more difficult at lower socioeconomic levels). If we were able to look beyond obesity hysteria and increase people of all sizes’ access to nutritious unprocessed food and active leisure activities, we might end up with a population that’s a bit less fat, in addition to being a lot more healthy. (I know which one I think is more important; official voices tend to disagree.) But that’s a far cry from saying that everyone can potentially be equally skinny, don’t you think?

Thanks, Kathryn, for the opportunity to clarify — and for writing an email that purports not to be a flame or troll that actually wasn’t a flame or troll.

91 thoughts on “Fat, genes, and environment”

  1. This is certainly a great post. That said, I wonder about the accuracy of weight statistics in, say, the Victorian era.

    I get into arguments with my skinny friends periodically about weight, and one actually had the audacity to say “well, if there were a whole bunch of fat people back in the day, why don’t we see that in art.” Of course, I pulled out a bunch of images of larger women (not Rubens) as well as photos from the Victorian era.

    Judging by these standards, most women back in the day would be considered “overweight” if not “obese” by our standards. Look at Queen Victoria. Look at your great grandparents’ family pictures.

    Does BMI research go back this far? Are my observations totally out of left field?

  2. Great post!
    If it helps anyone, I’ve posted before on a similar topic.

    (Another thing worth considering is how BMI scales. It’s your weight divided by the square of your height, while weight increases with the cube of height if shape stays the same. So if we as a population are growing taller but keeping the same proportions, our BMI will be going up.)

  3. No, you’re right on, Ashley — that’s part of what I mean about the average not getting all that much fatter. There is a type of fatness today that seems to have been quite rare (though not unheard-of) in earlier times, because people still had the genetic predisposition to fat and the predisposition to metabolic economy, but people had access to a different kind of food. But non-thinness, chubbiness, plumpness… there’s just nothing whatsoever that’s new about all that. We have fewer corsets, that’s all.

    And I didn’t even mention the contribution of diet culture.

  4. So if we as a population are growing taller but keeping the same proportions, our BMI will be going up.


    This is why I’m not a scientist, btw: no good with numbers. But that is mindblowing.

    (Please everyone do go read MissPrism’s post, because in addition to being one of the funniest Shapelings out there, she also is a scientist.)

  5. Yup – say I was a 1m cube of water: I’d weigh one metric ton and have a BMI of 1000. If I doubled in height to a cube of water 2m high, I’d weigh 8 tons and have a BMI of 2000.

    People don’t scale up exactly as they grow taller, so this is a slightly less severe problem than it sounds, but it still exists. Yet another reason why BMI’s crap.

  6. Completely spectacular post. This is a question that has existed as unformed goo in my head and never solidified for the asking. I’m thrilled to be able to read your response, I think its a solidly logical one.

    I also found MissPrism’s point about BMI increasing as heights increase to be an excellent one.

  7. You know, I’ve always known the unnatural, processed food we eat is all kinds of bad. But actually reading the phrase synthetic ingredients is really scary. I don’t even like to wear things made from synthetic material. The idea that I’m eating it is just… ugh ugh ugh! I wish people would phrase it that way more often, because “processed” really doesn’t drive home how icky and scary it is.

  8. This is something that has been on my mind a lot recently and I wonder how much it affects our weight.

    We, in Amerca, currently have free access to almost any type of food imaginable, at any time of the year, with minimal amount of work involved.

    So there are two things here:
    1. We don’t even have to expend calories to cook our food anymore if we don’t want to. We can get it in a frozen package and microwave it. We most certainly don’t have to expend the calories involved in growing or slaughtering our food. It is all done for us. The amount of work that was once spent simply feeding ourselves is probably a lot larger than we think, even as recently as 50 years ago.

    2. I am only speculating here but,we have unprecedented access to any type of food during any season. (though for a price.) I wonder if the type of foods we eat during certain times of the year affect our metabolism. While it is nice that we can now have beef stew in July and fresh fruit in December, I have to wonder if the time of year we consume certain foods affects how our body’s process them.

  9. Delurking to be pedantic (can’t help myself) because this is my field of expertise. As Miss Prism points out, genotype vs. environment (nature or nurture) is a false dichotomy. It is both, but in differing degrees.

    Moreover, not only can both genotype and environment affect a trait, but genotypes can and mostly do differ in how they respond to the environment. The wikipedia entry on “norms of reaction” gives a fair if unnecessarily difficult introduction into this (but with figures!).

    Skin color is a good example. People differ genetically in skin color, and people of all skin colors will tan, that is, their skin color changes with exposure to sun. How much their skin color changes with exposure to sun varies genetically – think redheads on the extreme.

    Consequently, an environmental effect doesn’t mean that there is no genetic component, any more than genetic variation in IQ indicates that environment doesn’t matter. As with IQ, it would hard to do the definitive experiment, since we’d need to take twins and put them in contrasting environments from birth.

  10. Piping up as a scientist whose field is population health, I would say FJ has put it beautifully. The only thing I would have to add is that it is vital to think about this phenomenon with maximum complexity. Many, many things have changed in the US population since the 19th Century. Though many of us have reasonable suspicions for why this might be, it is really not possible to say which of those nearly infinite changes in population or environment has led to the change in mean weight.

    Remember that for many biological outcomes, causality is very complex. Leaving aside the flaws in our measures of fatness, a combination of genetic and environmental factors has to be present for a person to be thin, to be medium-sized, to be a different medium-sized, to be fat, to be unusually fat. And one explanation doesn’t necessarily fit all–different combinations factors may be working on different subsets of the population.

    Among the biases that it is difficult for most of us to shed around this issue is a wish, conscious or otherwise, that the explanation would be simple. If there were just one thing, or just one combination of three things, that could be shown to be responsible for body size, then it would make it just more possible that we could control body size. Or at least, have something to “blame.” So it is important not to let the unscientific issues surrounding fat lead us to oversimplify, or to implicitly accept reductive arguments in the scientific debate.

  11. Awesome additions, Epiphenomena, thank you! (And I love your name, if I haven’t mentioned that before.)


    I wonder if the type of foods we eat during certain times of the year affect our metabolism.

    That’s an interesting thought, and I wonder if the localvores are pushing it. It does seem to bear out in terms of intuitive eating, at least for me — as soon as summer hits I mostly want fruit and raw or cold foods. (And orange sherbet.)

  12. But actually reading the phrase synthetic ingredients is really scary.

    It sounds scarier than it is. A lot of synthetic ingredients are exactly the same ingredients found in nature, but synthesized in a lab because it’s cheaper than extracting it from the natural source.

  13. I’ve always been bothered by the localvore people, since I live in Ohio, and that means I should be eating corn and soybeans year round, while the people who live in California — who, in all likelihood, haven’t been living in California for as many generations as I’ve been in Ohio/the Midwest — get to eat oranges and strawberries and pretty much everything under the SUN year ’round. /random rant

    But yes, we probably should pay more attention to the fact that our bodies, most likely, crave fruits and veggies when they’re closer to in season. Or, of course, in the middle of the winter, when we’re getting scurvy. :)

  14. I’ve been wondering for quite a while if all the growth hormones and antibiotics given to animals in feedlots, etc could also be a component of people seeming to be fatter. I don’t have a lot of knowledge when it comes to science, but it does seem to me that even if those substances are metabolized by the animals ingesting them, in whatever ways, that the by-products of them remain in the meat/milk/eggs we get at the supermarket and could affect us in a lot of unknown ways, weight just being one of them.

  15. I’ve returned it to the library, so I can’t quote directly, but the final chapter of Gina Kolata’s RETHINKING THIN talks about this. Her theory is that modern American society has reached the point where everyone is reaching their genetically maximum weight. The book is highly recommended, she is a science writer for the New York Times.

  16. I was just lying in bed thinking about this very thing last night!

    I don’t know about since the 1700’s , but many people seem to base the normal level of obesity from about the 1970’s. There are at least twoobvious changes since then that we know affect weight:

    1. Less smoking, and if you quit smoking you gain weight. (Average 6-8 pounds according to a quick google.)

    2. More SSRI’s prescribed. This causes an average weight gain. (According to this 15-20 lbs for several common ones: http://www.depression-guide.com/ssri-weight-gain.htm )

    So I think a big chunk of the weight gain in the average population is due to non-smoking non-depressed people. Obviously we have to encourage smoking and toughing out depression on your own (hey, if you kill yourself, at least you won’t get fat–that can be deadly you know!)

    There are also other ideas I’ve seen in my perusal of sciencedaily.com. Including:

    1. Skipping breakfast, probably more common in our rushed time.
    2. Lack of sleep, probably also more limited today than in yesteryear.
    3. Pthalates, a chemical found in plastic (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/03/070314110441.htm) I give the link because it’s kind of weird.
    4. Not enough omega fats in our diets anymore or the wrong balance of 3 and 6’s.

  17. I dunno, Stephanie, localvores can be pretty resourceful. Here’s a blog from one in Cincy who seems to have tons of tasty stuff (check out these farmer’s market finds)… although I do wonder if she’s checking whether the farmer’s markets are really local-only. At least one of the ones near us imports — they basically just sell grocery stuff in a farmer’s market context. (We aren’t localvores, but we still don’t go to that one… what’s the point of a farmer’s market if the produce isn’t going to taste 9203802836 times better because of not being shipped unripe?)

    I’m not particularly pushing it as a lifestyle, since it seems like it would be incredibly difficult in the winter and it’s thoroughly work-intensive, but people do seem to find some delicious stuff, even in the Midwest and the desert.

  18. I thought the locavore thing was because you got fresher ingredients and to save the carbon costs of shipping mostly. Certainly eating nothing but corn and soybeans wouldn’t be my idea of a tasty diet! I do like local berries in particular though, berries are just too fragile to ship when properly ripe. I strongly recommend Upick places even over local produce in the boxes at the store. You can get perfect ones, and the flavor is well worth the work.

    To me anyway. My hubby loves strawberries any time of the year, but unless they’re my own or very local I think they’re not worth eating.

  19. I thought the locavore thing was because you got fresher ingredients and to save the carbon costs of shipping mostly.

    I think that’s the primary reasoning, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some faction had come up with a reason why eating local would make you lose weight as a way to attract adherents, would you?

  20. If I may quote Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’ve just started reading “In Defense of Food” but I have a feeling I’m going to let out a whole bunch of hallelujahs and amens as I read because it picks up where Omnivore’s Dilemma left off … picking apart what Pollan calls “nutritionism” (the move away from common sense in eating and towards food science).

    No matter where my weight is, my body is a happier body without much processed food in it (Pollan calls them “edible foodlike substances,” which I think is a perfect, and true description!). It bears out in how I feel, and it bears out in every other measure of health as well.

  21. The big farmer’s market near me imports the majority of its foodstuffs. There is one wing that’s primarily local, but they generally have about five kinds of vegetables and zero fruit, unless it’s September.

    I guess what I really object to is that, like the organic food snobs (and I say this with love, because my mom is one), it’s just another way to make poor and/or city people feel inadequate about the food they can find/afford.

  22. I haven’t read Pollan’s book, but I was a fan of his excerpt in the NYT… in theory. Does he acknowledge how much cheaper fake food is, and how prohibitively difficult it can be to eat as he recommends when time and money are at a premium?

  23. You know, I’ve always known the unnatural, processed food we eat is all kinds of bad.

    I don’t know. Yes, I think food animals should have uncrowded enough conditions that we don’t need to give them antibiotics every day. But OTOH, humans have been processing food forever. Cooking and baking are not new. Curing meats? For those without refrigeration, it’s an essential skill.

    I think part of why the average American is 3 inches taller and weighs 50 lbs more now than during the Civil War is that better nutrition + use of vaccines == fewer illnesses!

    Check out these articles by Gina Kolata: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/30/health/30age.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

  24. vesta: I have a friend with two younger sisters, who are twins. When my friend was young, her family didn’t have much money, and ate very little meat. As a result, my friend developed very slowly, and was still growing/changing/getting larger boobs well into college. On the other hand, her younger sisters, who grew up eating more meat and processed foods, started puberty much sooner.

    Obviously, it’s only one anecdote, and my friend and her sisters may be genetically different enough to cause this difference. But it certainly gives one pause.

    And, yes, there is a locavore diet. Annoying, no? Take a perfectly good movement for better food, helping the environment and the local economy, and make it about weight loss. :-P

    I would say that most areas have interesting mixes of local food, even if it seems like all the major (commercial) local farms grow corn/soybeans/whatever. I have a friend in Cinncinnati who eats plenty of local foods, including fruits, veggies, eggs, and meat. You just have to be willing to do the looking. I read Plenty last week, and if you can eat local with the long winters of Canada, you can do it anywhere.

  25. Just to clarify, I don’t want to minimize the class issues that Stephanie and FJ bring up about farmer’s markets and local eating. I just wanted to point out that location isn’t as much of a hurdle as many think. There are certainly other issues at play here, *especially* the relative costs of processed foods v. local organics, and access to grocery stores/farmer’s markets/etc.

  26. FJ–No I wouldn’t be surprised. There’s probably someone somewhere advocating building more puny hybrid cars so we have get out and push them uphill, which will magically make us skinny.

  27. Bad wording, I meant building hybrid cars with punier engines than they have now, not that you have to build more hybrid cars because they are so puny you have to push the current models uphill.

  28. You know, I’ve always known the unnatural, processed food we eat is all kinds of bad. But actually reading the phrase synthetic ingredients is really scary.

    It’s both scarier than you think and a whole helluva lot less scarier.

    For a lot of things, I’m perfectly happy with lab-created ingredients. Vanillin from a lab and vanilla bean extract are both tasty, and I cannot tell the difference in a double blind taste test. This is not surprising, since vanillin is the major chemical component of vanilla bean extract, and when it is used in food it is dissolved in alcohol in the same way. The same sorts of things happen with other artificial flavors. You can also do things like lab-created sucrose, fructose, dextrose etc. All of these are entirely safe and often quite pleasant.

    The scarier parts come in with more elaborate chemistry. Figuring out what takes elaborate chemistry from a food label is… not trivial. Xanthan gum doesn’t sound particularly scary, but it’s high on the list of things my food scientist father won’t eat. He won’t eat it because he hates the texture, not because there is any known harmful effect. But it’s rather weird stuff to make, and it’s definitely not something we’d ordinarily eat as it’s derived from compounds formed by molds that are not safe for human consumption. The various other truly weird ingredients are all things that are proven safe… but they are also weird and not something I’d *pick* to eat.

    I think it’s more helpful to treat processed foods as just that.. processed. The companies Dad has worked for are always very concerned that the food they make is safe to eat, without any sort of contamination. But they’re not at all concerned about whether the food item is a good one to have as a regular part of one’s diet. The only way they’ll kill a product is if it is impossible to manufacture and ship it safely, or if it fails to sell.

    Since I have a very ground floor view of the food industry, I really appreciate the things they do well… and I don’t eat much of what they make. Thanks to Dad, I have a very clear understanding that “a little” is ok, and “a lot” is right out.

  29. I read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” just recently, and there is acknowledgment there of both money and time issues, though neither is the primary concern of the book. I haven’t read the more recent book yet.

  30. FJ:

    I think Michael Pollan makes a good point in theory and I haven’t read his book but he was on an NPR program sounding like a complete elitist douche a few months back and it completely turned me off of him. He made some comment along the lines of “it’s all about how you prioritize your life and if you make healthy eating a priority than its not that hard” and that made me want to hit him.

    I will admit to the possibility that I am overly sensitive though.

  31. He does in Omnivore’s Dilemma – which is an examination of the whole food production system and how it’s gotten to where it is today (why it *is* so much cheaper to eat poorly). As I said, I’ve just started In Defense of Food; one of the criticisms I’ve seen of it is that it does suffer from a bit of elitism.

    I find for me I do a bit of a blend – processed food only when anything else is impractical (and even then I try to keep it minimally processed – I keep dried fruit in my car and gym bag so I have something at the ready when I “bonk” so I reach for it instead of junk food, and I keep some trail mix bars and protein bars around for travel or days when I’m out being active all day).

    But for day-to-day needs, I do buy a lot of my produce at the grocery store (I’m price sensitive like anyone else, not perfect!), but I’ve found myself trying to be more aware of where it comes from and I’d rather get the navel oranges from California rather than Florida (I live in Washington). I am fortunate enough to have farmer’s markets that do support the local farmers, but sometimes the price points shock me.

    And I make my own convenience foods – like most people I pop something in the microwave for lunch, but it’s something I prepared a bunch of on Sunday night, or in the crockpot one weekend, or it’s leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, or it’s a sweet potato and some soup (okay, that is packaged). I haven’t bought a frozen dinner in years, but I also don’t eat out for lunch very often. Instead of oatmeal packets I use plain oats and add real fruit. Surprise – it takes about the same amount of time in the microwave.

  32. Yeah, I don’t buy the “Americans are fat because they eat so much processed food” argument. If that were true, how could it be that I eat organic, whole, real food that I make from scratch and stay fat, while someone else eats fast food and highly processed and toxin-filled foods and stays thin? Hmm.

    What I think is that just as adequate calories create greater height within a person’s genetic possibility, adequate calories also create greater weight within a person’s genetic possibility. Good *nutrition* will make a tall or fat person healthy and poor nutrition will make a tall or fat person unhealthy. We don’t assume tallness as an indication of ill health, and we’re making a very big mistake by doing so with fatness. We’re genetically predisposed to hold onto fat because it is *good* for us, because it is protective.

    That’s not to say that all fatness is normal or healthy. But neither is all thinness, or all average-weightedness. There *are* dysfunctions of the body and mind, which in general are more common in America due to incredibly unnatural chemical and stress loads in the average American lifestyle, which can lead to debilitating conditions given genetic susceptiblity. But to put those conditions on the same spectrum as normal body variation, as if they have anything to do with each other, is ridiculous.

    “it would hard to do the definitive experiment, since we’d need to take twins and put them in contrasting environments from birth.”

    This has been done, hasn’t it? (With twins put up for adoption)

  33. Stephanie, the farm states are fantastic places for farmers’ markets. I’m in Chicago, which has good ones, but Green Bay and Des Moines both have huge ones with lots of variety. And, with hoop houses and greenhouses, you can extend the season quite a bit even where winter seems to last forever.

    And here, there are subsidized coupons for the farmers markets for folks who might not be able to afford it otherwise. Our big problem in Chicago is that there are “food deserts” where there aren’t any grocery stores. If we at least have a farmers market in those areas, it’s a big step up.

    Oh, and fresh local lettuce? So freaking good. Now I know why people like salads!

  34. A fun book to read on local eating is Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally. They really dive into the issue of cost. The authors are a couple living in a small apartment in Vancouver BC who decided to only eat food grown/produced within 100 mile radius for one year. They faced a lot of practical issues of access to food, storage, cost – their first meal (purchased at the local yuppie markets) cost over $100 for four people, and they quickly realized THAT wasn’t going to be sustainable. They had to get very creative, very quickly.

    I’m sure that I couldn’t be that committed to the local lifestyle, but it was definitely eye-opening to see what they were able to do (and how they were able to ultimately bring their spending way down through seeking out different sources other than the high-end “elitist” stores).

  35. If that were true, how could it be that I eat organic, whole, real food that I make from scratch and stay fat, while someone else eats fast food and highly processed and toxin-filled foods and stays thin?

    The idea in my post, at least, is that if you have a high setpoint and an efficient metabolism, you might be somewhat MORE fat if you ate fast food and highly processed and toxin-filled foods. That’s the simplified, since as several people have pointed out it’s very complex, way in which your genetics and your environment interact. But it’s certainly not the case that humans are all built on the same basic mold, with the only difference being the amount of food/amount of fast food one consumes.

  36. I think we also need to keep in mind that many if not most of our perceptions of the past are distorted — simplified, usually romanticized, and sometimes false. Food adulteration, for instance, was appallingly common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and in the absence of adequate referigeration food poisoning was a common complaint.

    Stephanie, I live in Sonoma County, California — just about ground zero for locavores — and I think there’s truth to your complaint. There *is* a strong element of snobbery in the locavore movement, along with hefty doses of holier-than-thou and unacknowledged privilege. But their money’s good, and it’s funded a greater variety and higher quality of local produce and products than … well, I’m fifty, born Californian of Californian folks, and I don’t think there’s ever been so much so easily available before. So on the one hand they get my goat, and on the other, I’m happy as a pig in swill.

  37. marcelle 42: one of the major determinants of the onset of puberty is nutrition – especially protein intake. It isn’t at all surprising that your friend’s meat-eating sisters started puberty earlier.

    I’ve been buying most of my produce at a local green grocer-type place, and I found it’s both fresher and cheaper than the supermarket up the street. It’s not all local since they sometimes carry pineapples and the like, but the locally grown produce (oranges, potatoes) are the cheapest . I don’t think I could ever be a true lovocore, though, because I love some produce (like artichokes) that simply doesn’t grow in inland near-desert climates.

    (I haven’t read Plenty, but I’ve read about it, and it sounds like the authors spent a great deal of time and effort rounding up local food. That’s great if it’s your hobby, but most people don’t have that luxury.)

  38. Well I’ll say right here you do not get skinny as a organic locavore veganist… no no you don’t

    How do I know this? Well I have food allergies so I can’t eat meat or cheese. I eat organic cuz after I cut out the fats in my diet the rest of the stuff started tasting chemically

    As for locally grown produce, I believe in supporting local farmers plus the food is… so…. freaking….good.

    But I’m still fat. Granted I did lose a fair bit of a weight but there were other factors with that I got off birth control pills and I had left my ex(who was abusive and a prick). I pretty much evened out where I had been my whole life.

  39. I haven’t read Plenty, but I’ve read about it, and it sounds like the authors spent a great deal of time and effort rounding up local food. That’s great if it’s your hobby, but most people don’t have that luxury.

    You’re absolutely right — they are freelance writers, and spend a huge amount of time in the pursuit of local foods, which is totally unrealistic for most folks.

  40. Ok, I can’t cite the sources for this since I’m not hooked up to the right databases (and besides the sources would likely be in Norwegian), but we actually have excellent data on public health from Norway in the decades before, during and after the second world war (has to do with early development in demographical stuides, sometimes with sketchy ideas behind them, but oh well). As you may know, Norway was occupied for five years (1940-45), and there were relatively severe restrictions on food (but not at all at the dangerous shortage level) and also gas. So people ate what they could get *in* Norway, i. e. fish, potatoes, grains, dairy, some veggies, meat sometimes–sugar, coffee, other imports etc. were extremely hard to get. And car transport was restricted–people walked or cycled even more than usual, and more people took part in cultivating soil usually not used for farming.
    Every study I’ve seen has shown that by 1945, the general population was actually extremely healthy (blood pressure etc.) and the AVERAGE weight was lower than before or after the war. But just as FJ writes, this does not mean that everyone was thin, just that they were as slim as was natural for them. This is true also from the photos I’ve seen of familiy from the era–people have their basic shapes, but are probably quite trim and look like they’ve spent a lot of time doing healthy things.

    Not to recommed a five-year occupation, though, even a relatively light one like Norway had…

  41. Pretty clever of them, to make money writing about their hobby though. Makes running down that local food all part of the day’s work, which it wouldn’t be for most people. Chefs too, can probably justify it.

  42. “What is hard for me to understand is the increase in human weight in certain parts of the world. ”

    Actually, there is an increase in human weight in all parts of the world that don’t have a lot of starving people. It’s not just the US. China is enjoying the same sort of increase.

  43. I read Plenty last week, and if you can eat local with the long winters of Canada, you can do it anywhere.

    Except that “Canada” is a big and diverse place, and being able to eat locally in very temperate Vancouver is not the same as being able to eat locally in, say, Manitoba. Which isn’t to say it would be impossible, but it would involve canning a lot of vegetables in the fall to eat in the winter, and not everyone has the time or ability to do that.

  44. My several times great grandfather (1770’s) was “immensely fat” .

    There have been fat Americans from the beginning.

  45. But just as FJ writes, this does not mean that everyone was thin, just that they were as slim as was natural for them.

    Or slimmer — under restricted food conditions some people would have gone down to a weight that was lower than typical/healthy for them, and rebounded once food was available again.

  46. Thanks for this. It’s a clear, calm explanation of an objection I tend to get a lot.

    Really? The objection to the idea of weight having a large genetic component that “but so-and-so gained/lost [some huge amount of weight]!” is pretty much exactly the same, in terms of argument, as the people who object to climate change because that thar winter shore is kold!

    Thank you for reminding me, too, to ask my doctor at my appt tomorrow about what it could have been that caused my malnutrition as a kid/teen. Severely low appetite, but why? (un)surprisingly, NONE of my doctors ever pursued that one.

  47. Well, here’s the thing. Not only are HUMAN weights going up all around the world, so are ANIMAL WEIGHTS. As far as I know, birds don’t eat Big Macs and cats don’t drink Pepsi (cats don’t even have taste buds for sweets!). Yet here they are, fatter. I don’t think I’m feeding my cats any more than my mom fed hers 20 years ago — in fact, I’m sure I don’t — but two of the three of them are HUUUUGE. And animals in the wild are bigger and heavier, too. To me that points to something environmental as at least a partial cause. Pharmaceutical pee in the ground water, maybe?

  48. Yes, FJ, that is of course true, though the general health was better than a a few decades later.
    And with the post-WW2 Marshall-plan and welfare increase, Norwegians grew to actually fulfill their genetic height-potential as a population. So nutrition and height are def. linked. Apparently, ethnic Scandinavians as a group can’t get any taller now (fortunately, some might say). This, of course, does not explain why I’m only 5 feet tall!

  49. I read a long time ago that having variety in your food would spark your appetite. That’s what so wonderful about buffets. It could be that a combination of having all the seasonal foods year-round and all the cuisines of the world does contribute to maxing out your range.

    However, I agree with the theory that a great deal of problem weight is directly attributable to dieting. Especially those undertaken when a person did not need to lose weight but was just a little rounder than our media-driven norms. Do we have anyone anymore that grew up chubby and didn’t get pressured to diet? Is there anyone alive that fits that description?

  50. Shinobi said: “I wonder if the type of foods we eat during certain times of the year affect our metabolism. While it is nice that we can now have beef stew in July and fresh fruit in December, I have to wonder if the time of year we consume certain foods affects how our body’s process them.”

    I have to doubt that since the further toward the equator you go, the more likely it is that native populations eat the same thing year round.

  51. I’m curious whether much of the rhetoric on this issue has at all looked into the difference in TYPES of weight, including different types of fat.

    As we now know, subcutaneous fat isn’t at all unhealthy, and in fact can be beneficial to health. It’s only visceral fat–the deep abdominal stuff–that’s ever been reliably linked with disease.

    And of course, muscle weighs more than fat, and a higher protein diet is going to lead to better muscle development.

    Given all that, why on earth are we talking about obesity trends only in terms of weight and clothing size? Is there any research at all out there that says that there’s been a significant increase in visceral fat, as opposed to subcutaneous fat and muscle tissue?

    Additionally, I know some studies have tried to correllate higher rates of diabetes and heart disease with an overall increase in weight, but that doesn’t make sense either, because a busier, more stressful modern lifestyle could explain both things, as could better overall healthcare and reporting. If only one out of 10 diabetics was being properly treated and therefore added to statistics 50 years ago, (compared to perhaps 6 in 10 now) how can we possibly say that overall diabetes rates have gone up?

  52. Also…

    A question none of the Fat = Death! folks have never been able to answer for me: If we as a species are fatter and more diseased than ever before, why are we also living longer than we ever have?

    And if fat = death, why do large-bodied Polynesians live longer than slender New Yorkers?

    And for that matter, why does Japan have similar heart disease rates, when the vast majority of Japanese aren’t at all “overweight”?

    Gee, could it be that high stress levels in Japan and New York, relative to lower ones for Polynesians, might be a teensy bit contributing to these stats?

    (But of course, we can’t ever talk about the stress of city life and 60-hour workweeks being at all a factor in health because then we might be–gasp!–questioning capitalism. And we can’t have that!)

  53. Twincats, but the climate also remains more stable in those areas, so any interaction between climate and the body’s function would also remain relatively stable. Though, again, I totally made this up.

  54. “it’s just another way to make poor and/or city people feel inadequate about the food they can find/afford.”

    Amen to that Stephanie!

    I’m also ticked at how many people seem happy to brag about how much local and organic produce they can afford to buy while I’m trying to tell them that anything not a processed white carb is too expensive for me to buy. Whatever, you eat only organic oranges picked by golden sandaled angels, but maybe if you have that much disposable income you could spend it to make sure that at least one poor person near you can get a piece of fruit once a month. Nutrition has become a privilege, actual food is too far out of the reach of a lot of people, and sometimes the person you’re talking to is one of them.

  55. @Meowser, I didn’t know animal weights were going up too. It’s particularly interesting for birds, as they should really have a tight weight range, given the tension between having enough muscle, and not too much that they can’t fly easily. Makes me go hmmm about those pthalates again. Or hormones in the water, we pee out a lot of drugs; I think that was your point?

  56. Going off what RP said about subsidies for the farmer’s market, there is a Farmer’s Market Nutritional program operating in 46 states that provides low income families with food stamp-esque coupons that can only be redeemed at farmer’s markets. If you qualify for food stamps, it’s worth investigating if you qualify for FMNP as well. I think that although locavorism is certainly a movement of privlege, it has had positive ‘trickle down’ effects in that it’s changing the way food aid is provided to lower income neighborhoods and food distribution non-profits are starting to focus more on making lower-income neighborhoods more self-sustained.Closing the Food Gap is a really well-written book addressing the problems of food deserts and how to provide high-quality food to low income neighborhoods.

  57. On a side note in response to the puny hybrid…

    We recently bought a Prius because we live in California where the gas prices are almost always the highest in the nation. My spousal unit is skinny and it is his car for commuting, but I have ridden in it, and I must say with awe and shock that it is ROOMY inside. It is actually comfortable to ride in with leg room and everything. His previous commuting car was a Geo Metro and it was not roomy nor comfortable.

    While I’m not tall, I’ve got wide hips (airlines… eww) and I’m pretty large and still I was able to sit in the backseat comfortably as well as the front seat and drive.

    And it gets up and goes pretty well too. It will also seat all 4 of my family comfortably AND our corgi dog, although he has to sit in the back, without bottoming out.

    So fear not the puny hybrid… it looks small but it isn’t.

  58. um. The dog doesn’t bottom out… nor does the car with 4 people and a dog. Re-reading that looks weird to me now. heheheh.


  59. Most modern rich societies are hitting their full heights and weights. China is in the midst of a boom, as already noted; and Japan has zoomed upwards and outwards since the end of WW2, though they’re still shorter and slimmer than the U.S. population. Same with Great Britain, and look at their anti-obesity obsession.

  60. This is a question that has existed as unformed goo in my head and never solidified for the asking.


    You know, I’ve always known the unnatural, processed food we eat is all kinds of bad. But actually reading the phrase synthetic ingredients is really scary. I don’t even like to wear things made from synthetic material. The idea that I’m eating it is just… ugh ugh ugh! I wish people would phrase it that way more often, because “processed” really doesn’t drive home how icky and scary it is.

    Soylent Green is people, y’all.

  61. Soylent Green is people, y’all.

    Oh, well, that sounds natural and full of protein!

  62. Hear, hear, Stephanie, Godless Heathen, et al! I’ve been working on a blog post (not published yet, but inspired by a recent house guest) entitled “Being an Insufferable Sanctimonious Priss About What You Eat is ALSO a Food Justice Issue” because it seems as though – like the focus on “healthy habits” in general – the purer-than-thou eaters have just found themselves a way to be acceptably classist. And often it’s accompanied by this condescending notion that, well, if only other people COULD eat as I do, if only they KNEW how much better it is, if only they were INFORMED and had the MEANS, then of COURSE they would because it’s natural. Meaning, everyone else’s eating habits are culturally-informed, but my OWN PERSONAL eating habits reflect how all human beings everywhere were designed to eat. Um, yeah, right, because the current obsession about what’s “natural” just dropped out of the sky one day. Doesn’t reflect cultural anxieties at all, nope, move along, nothing to see here.

    (I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying every organic enthusiast does this. But one runs into people from time to time who seem to believe that their own ability to spend gobs of money on organic produce — shipped from California to their suburban high-end grocery store hundreds and hundreds of miles away, sold by big companies that have wisely gotten on the organic gravy train because they knew how profitable it would be — is just flat-out morally superior to any other kind of food-getting; and then when they put this alleged superiority to blatantly classist uses… well, it just sticks in my craw. Particularly when such a person is eating dinner AT MY HOUSE! Grrrr.)

  63. Hello there. This has been the most informative thread I have read in the FA.

    (btw I’m the reader in FJ’s post)

    It has solidified my position in this movement.

    Thank you all.

  64. Piffle: I have to admit I’m not sure about the increase in the weight of flighted birds (aside from those raised specifically for food who are fattened up artificially). But I’m pretty sure waterfowl weights have increased.

  65. The problem is that there are hundreds of theories – each of which sound compelling and reasonable when you look at them alone.

    Is it:
    That we’re more sedentary?
    That we eat more calories overall (for various reasons)?
    The kinds of calories we eat more of? (e.g. more carbohydrates/HFCS)
    The kinds of calories we eat fewer of? (e.g. fats and proteins)
    The timing of our eating (e.g. snacking)
    The palatability of our food? (e.g. fast food)
    Increases in dieting and restrictive eating (e.g. weight cycling)?
    The influence of advertising and social cues?
    Chemical influences on our physiology (e.g. hormones or plastics)
    Increase in the use of and introduction of certain medications (e.g. SSRIs)
    A decrease in smoking or maybe other drug use?
    Changes in sleeping patterns?
    Changes in rearing (e.g. nursing)?
    Epigenetic changes?
    Viral causes or changes in gut flora?

    You could go on all day…but the point is that you could make a strong argument for any of these “causes.” But that argument is going to look a lot weaker when you consider it along with the all the other possible “causes.”

    But what do you do with that information – or lack of information? Do you wave your hand and say – well it’s a combination of all of these? Ok – but all of them equally? Some of them and not others? Is one of them dominant? Are some of them actually overall GOOD for us?

    If we give up and say – oh it’s everything – it’s just “the Western Lifestyle” – then we’re asking people to make drastic changes in their lives and for us to make drastic changes in the environment based on pure speculation as to what will make us healthier (if anything).

    And more importantly we’re playing on and into existing prejudices about modernity and its evils that can be incredibly pernicious and generally have little to do with health. e.g. our feelings about globalism, capitalism and anti-americanism, or reactionary religious ideas about modernity, immorality and sin, or classist and racist stereotypes about laziness and ignorance, or fascistic and nationalistic ideas about difference, purity and the social body, or puritan ideas about health and morality…etc, etc. etc.

    There’s something here for everyone. Which is why it’s so important to be emphatic that at the moment we can’t be sure what’s going on. It’s a crucial point that we don’t know. Because the question of WHY is so central to how people use the “obesity epidemic” to fuel their own agendas. And how those agendas fuel the moral panic about obesity.

  66. Right on, A Sarah and Godless Heathen. When did it get acceptable to be rude like that?

    (Speaking as someone who can’t afford/doesn’t have access to sufficient local/organic food. Oh, and also someone who doesn’t have time/energy to make a cooked-from-scratch dinner every night.)

  67. One thing I do like is that in our area people on food assistance can get vouchers to go spend at the local farmers’ market. One of my neighbors is a truck farmer and she sees a lot of people using these to get high quality fruits and vegetables. It’s good for their health and good for the local economy. Win all around. We clearly need more of these, to make the best food available to everyone.

    @Meowser, life is interesting and sometimes my brain and curiosity get ahead of my tact. I just thought it would be so interesting if something was driving birds to be less fit overall.

  68. Yeah, WIC covers food at my local farmer’s market, which is great — don’t know if it does that everywhere. But you know, to get to the farmer’s market in the first place you would need to either have a car or pay for the commuter train. And time to go (I’m about to miss out because I’m still at work — it ends at 7, so nobody who works semi-long hours can make it). And time to cook.

  69. Belatedly saying also that this post and Fatfu’s comments both made me go, “Holy buckets, you folks are smart!” and applaud in appreciation. (I don’t think there’s a graemlin for that?) I’m mentally filing the key points away for use in future conversation and I will give proper credit. Thank you!!

  70. I’m not a scientist but I’ll just recount my personal observation and experience.

    I was born in Korean and when I was a kid, everyone was pretty much the same size. Most people didn’t have access to lots of fatty foods or meat. But traditional Korean food is very low fat, spicy, and mostly whole grains and vegetarian. There were hardly any dairy or dessert. Most desserts in asian are european or others in origin. Most older Koreans consider snacking to be undignified, for children, or foreign. Most of my family did not snack or have a sweet tooth.

    There were hardly any processed foods and most people made their own staples at home. I remember my grandmother making all her sauces in giant clay jars and making kimchee during kimchee season with all the other families.

    Most people ate rice with vegetables and meat maybe once every few months. I remeber that losing weight was considered to be very bad and a reason for concern. My grandmother would go to the acupuncturist and get prescriptions to keep weight on for some of my family members. There were no eating disorder that I’ve ever seen then except for not eating enough naturally.

    Now, because of the fast food and westernization of lifestyle, there are some very much bigger people around. You can definitely see younger people who would be considered morbidly obese but interestingly enough most people look the same to me. There are thinner people and average people just as before. However, I understand lots of people are trying to diet now and there’s an increase in anorexia.

    Western diet and lifestyle seems to make the people who are prone to very high weight gain gain and cause eating disorder and anorexia in the population that could gain more weight than average. But some people are just naturally slim and doesn’ t effect them. It seems to bear out your thoughts on what happened to the western population with regard to genetics, weight, and height.

  71. marcelle42, on June 5th, 2008 at 5:40 pm Said:
    “I read Plenty last week, and if you can eat local with the long winters of Canada, you can do it anywhere.”

    To follow up on Becky’s reply, Vancouver’s winters are darker, but otherwise about the same weather as North Carolina.

    The real problem with locavorism, outside of cornucopia places like California, is variety. I personally would have a hard time going back to eating only root vegetables and preserves for six months — no salads, no fresh fruit (I’ve lived places where we put up apples for the winter. By January, they’re best cooked.), nothing tropical ever. Hell, where I grew up, these things would be off limits: rice, apples & pears (let alone stone fruits, melons, and citrus), corn, wine, olive oil, nuts, peanut butter, and brown sugar. I think it’s possible to grow wheat locally, but nobody does, so that goes too.

    There is something to be said for eating seasonally, and I do pay more for local when possible, but this movement tends to ignore how monotonous diets used to be.

  72. I wonder how much our appetite is controlled by the amount of nutrients that are present in the food we eat? If the food is more processed and less nutritious, will the body compensate by driving people to eat more? I have even heard (can’t remember where) that fruits and vegetables are no longer as nutritious as they once were, because of farming practices, genetic modification of plants and lack of maturity/ripeness at harvest. Anyone have any info about this?

  73. This has been the most informative thread I have read in the FA.

    EXACTLY. I can hardly contain myself. Oh my. All of my questions have been answered. *drops dead*

    No, seriously. Lots of revelations today. Especially this:

    So if we as a population are growing taller but keeping the same proportions, our BMI will be going up. :O

    And this:

    Well, here’s the thing. Not only are HUMAN weights going up all around the world, so are ANIMAL WEIGHTS. As far as I know, birds don’t eat Big Macs and cats don’t drink Pepsi (cats don’t even have taste buds for sweets!). Yet here they are, fatter. I don’t think I’m feeding my cats any more than my mom fed hers 20 years ago — in fact, I’m sure I don’t — but two of the three of them are HUUUUGE. And animals in the wild are bigger and heavier, too. :O

    My own, previous attempts at an explanation also included this:

    1. Less smoking, and if you quit smoking you gain weight. (Average 6-8 pounds according to a quick google.)

    2. More SSRI’s prescribed. This causes an average weight gain.

    Good thing someone else has covered it already.

    I would also like to point out that we are getting older as a population. If we are older on average, maybe this affects the average weight as well? Not sure about that.

  74. Zilly i’m pretty sure being older in average affects it, and also higher weight in older individuals has been shown to correlate with better lower mortality so i guess its GOOD for an older population to weigh more… (i think i read that in paul campos’ book)

  75. Thanks to everyone for this thread, it’s very informative and thought inspiring.

    I just have a quick question, not being a native English speaker and just cause I think it’s a something that’s poorly defined: what constitutes ‘processed’ foods?
    I imagine this definition would be different to different people?

    I mean, people talk all the time about processed foods being bad or defending it and I just find it very confusing. Just to give an example: krisanne talked about making their oatmeal (which is porridge, right?) from oats and fruit instead of a package (so it’s oats and dried fruit mixed, like muesli?), but unless you’re using whole oat grains, then isn’t it still processed, really?
    Similarly, I make most of our food from scratch, but cooking *is* processing, where is the line?
    If anyone could help me out, I’d really appreciate it

  76. Maggishness,

    Processed foods for us usually means mass produced foods that have additives, preservatives, and stabilizers so that it would have a long shelf life. It’s not just cooking but adding, subtracting, or doing other non cooking stuff to make it less perishable, look better in stores, and taste like the real thing. Many of these foods have artificial flavors added back for taste after ‘processing.’

    For example, the packaged oatmeals in general have many more ingredients than oatmeal and fruit. They might have added sugar, flavor, or other preservatives. Many companies use inferior or cheaper ingredients and used artificial flavors to make them appealing or palatable.

    Any other definitions, anyone?

  77. What I hate is when mainstream articles (I think I saw some kind of “special report” in Scientific American a year or two ago, and there was a series on public radio over the winter) report in breathless tones about increases in average weight around the world and just leave that hanging there as a self-evident bad thing. Like “we all know that fat causes every disease known to man, so… there you go! Don’t my statistics showing that people in India are getting fatter shock and upset you?!” On its own, that doesn’t really mean too much to me.

    The factor mentioned in the post that has always clicked for me is the fact of the largest people getting larger, but the average not shifting all that much. (I can envision how a “flexible setpoint” might be genetically advantageous, since in leaner times you could immediately store an unexpected windfall of calories as fat, which could maybe help you get through the winter or an illness, while the more typical guy next to you could eat himself silly but still not put on much weight. Of course rapid weight gain might have its own risks and stresses, so I’m sure if this is true it’s not that clear-cut.)

    This factor may also explain a lot of why there is so much public *perception* of an obesity epidemic–you don’t remember the endless parade of people you see every day who look pretty much like your perception of “average” weight, or a little thinner or fatter than that, but you might remember the one guy you saw who was very fat. That goes double, for the average fatphobe, if he happened to be eating something at the time you saw him (again, did you notice all the average-weight people eating Extra Value Meals when you went to grab lunch at McDonald’s, or just the one strikingly large guy you saw there? I always wonder what the fat-haters who supposedly saw some fat kid at McDonald’s and that is evidence of the downfall of society were doing at McDonald’s in the first place if it’s so terrible).

    If there are a few more very fat people around, it would be very easy to develop the misperception that “many” people in current society are very fat, compared to “none” or “a few” when you were younger. Which gets morphed in your brain into the equally questionable belief that if there are more very fat people (as your brain has concluded), then this must mean that everyone is getting fatter.

    Similarly, a lot of people point to the (relative) abundance of fashionable plus-size clothing and other size accommodations (and if you have ever been fat, you are probably laughing bitterly at the idea of “abundance,” but anyway) as evidence that people across the board are getting much bigger. Or, as MeMe Roth would put it, that being fat is becoming “socially acceptable.” Personally I think the perception (in my opinion, incorrect perception) of an obesity epidemic is what got the attention of many businesses–perhaps this caused them to say “hey, apparently there is a ‘new’ untapped market here” and start meeting a need that already existed. I mean, my mom needed plus-sized clothes as a young woman the same as I did as a young woman, but she had to make do with the extremely meager selection at the mall whereas I could at least get something reasonable at Lane Bryant by the time I was a teenager. Her mom probably needed plus-sized clothes as well, but in those days you just had to sew your own clothes (not that many people didn’t do this anyway) if you were outside a fairly narrow size range. In my personal opinion there has always been a market for items that cater to folks on the ends of the size bell curve, but the obesity panic has partially “raised the profile” of this customer base and caused the market to actually be served now moreso than before. I just don’t see how there can be a “suddenly” huge market for plus sizes when the average adult weight hasn’t really gone up that much, or so I hear.

    I have no idea if any of this is true, but it seems plausible to me. :)

  78. On the locavore thing; I recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Her family did it for a year on an old family farm It was in some state that I forget, where they used to grow tobacco.

    Corn and soy only is one of the problems that the new food movements are on about changing. Large scale agribusiness gets the most yield per dollar input, but these monocrops are relatively new, and ecologically dangerous. Does no-one remember the Irish potato famine? Diversity is important, yet traditional varieties are being lost at a great rate. I don’t know what the native Americans and early European settlers would have eaten in any given state, but you can easily imagine them keeping vegetable gardens and a few chickens and a cow, or hunting deer.

    It is currently a luxury way of eating and I wouldn’t force it on anyone, but it is part of a movement to make our food better and more sustainable. Good on those who can do it, keep up the good work and the pressure, and maybe it will get better for all of us.

    And just one more little data point on causes of weight increase: a lot of modern foodstuffs have been bred to maximise size, shininess, ease of transport and so on, as well as blander taste. A lot actually contain fewer micronutrients than fifty years ago. If your body is deprived of a vitamin, it tends to crave food that contains it – and if now you have to eat six apples instead of one to get what you need, well, you get the picture… It is possible to be fat and malnourished at the same time.

  79. Genetics aren’t destiny, nor wholly determinative. We don’t have to postulate that genes changed at all; there’s a lot of environmental shifts in the past 100 years that would explain how these genes were expressed.

    Diet’s one of them, and probably the biggest. Food’s readily available for most Americans compared to 100 years ago. So is default activity level. I read somewhere once that 75 years ago, a sedentary lifestyle was defined as anyone who didn’t do at least three hours of physical labor today. Something as simple as doing the laundry was more intense than many workouts.

    The human body is *good* at adapting to its environment. That’s what makes it awesome, but that’s also why a change can be genetically controlled but environmentally dependent.

    Now, saying that something is genetically controlled is not to say that that’s a good reason to think that a lifestyle of 100 years ago should be emulated, even if it is possible. We’re not going to start all working the fields and occasionally experiencing famine just to stay a size six!! And that’s what’s wrong with the arguments that say ‘there were no fat people 100 years ago.’ A), there were, and B), that was 100 years ago.

    But if I were dropped into 100 years ago, with my same genes, I’d probably be three inches shorter, plumper, with bad teeth. Same genes, different environment. If we dropped my great-grandmother into 2008, she’d be taller, heavier, and have better teeth.

  80. I’m a bad lefty. I remain unconvinced that processed foods are bad for us. I agree that they might be less nutrient dense, but I am not so sure they are as corrosive as some people think. Of course, I’m no scientist. I only observe that in an age loaded with processed food, we’re living longer and more healthfully that ever.

    I also can’t be fussed to eat locally.

    Bad, bad lefty!

  81. meowser: “And animals in the wild are bigger and heavier, too. To me that points to something environmental as at least a partial cause. Pharmaceutical pee in the ground water, maybe?”

    Could climate change do that?

  82. Cindy, I kind of agree. I’m not saying processed foods are optimal, but I was reading a book by the guy who developed PCR (who is sort of batshit as far as I could tell from the book, but never mind) and he made the argument that we would have evolved to efficiently use basically whatever is to hand for energy, which made sense to me. Then there are the studies that Junkfood Science has written up about how eating a “healthy” diet doesn’t seem to make any difference to things that you might think it would, such as breast cancer survival.

    I know this isn’t necessarily the last word, and eating “not-healthily” is not exactly the same as eating lots of processed synthetic foods that are relatively new to us as food sources and that our bodies might not handle well, but color me skeptical that processed foods are the devil we seem to think they are all the same.

    I think everyone should eat in a way that makes them feel great and helps them function, and personally I feel sort of logey and (ahem) constipated and depressed if I’m eating a lot of processed foods and not many fruits, vegetables, etc., so I do try to emphasize all of the stuff they tell you to emphasize like whole grains, lean protein, fruits, vegetables, etc. And it seems to help me feel better and less tired. But that doesn’t mean that eating healthily will necessarily keep you thin (as we all well know) or extend your life.

    I’m gonna start buying local. As soon as I get my ass out of bed and around in time to get to the local farmer’s market… I made it all of once last year (because I really needed strawberries with stems to decorate a cake I was making, so I made an effort) so I hope to do better this year. Meanwhile Meijer (a Michigan-based grocer) has started sporadically posting signs to indicate items that are locally grown.

    An interesting little eating locally note… the local public radio station’s environment reporter decided to try and eat locally as an experiment, and was going to the extent of trying to find herbs and even salt from local sources (I think to make the reporting more interesting). There are salt mines under Detroit, so he assumed the salt part would be easy. But it turned out he had to go to Canada to get Detroit salt. Of course this isn’t as big a deal as it sounds because I think he just went across to Windsor and found it fairly easily (and I suppose it’s the same salt regardless of what side of the river it came from). But on the face of it I thought this was sort of amusing, like “man leaves country in search of local food” or something.

  83. I’m a bad lefty. I remain unconvinced that processed foods are bad for us. I agree that they might be less nutrient dense, but I am not so sure they are as corrosive as some people think. Of course, I’m no scientist. I only observe that in an age loaded with processed food, we’re living longer and more healthfully that ever.

    I also can’t be fussed to eat locally.

    I agree. I really don’t think processed foods are evil. I know some people feel awful when they eat processed foods, but I’ve never noticed that in myself – and when I was eating an all-natural vegan diet that should have left me in radiant health, I developed all sorts of problems. (I don’t think it’s because I was doing it the wrong way, either. I had a plan designed by a nutritionist, and my mother, who was eating almost the exact same stuff as me, felt great. It depends so much on individual body chemistry.)

  84. But no one says it’s all unhealthy that people are getting taller – OMG Americans are getting so tall, isn’t that unhealthy????

    Health is an issue, a very important one. But this blog has done it’s job in teaching me that you can’t judge health by weight.

    And it’s a personal choice. I know my body’s probably not built for dairy, I have lactose intolerance. But my family has a history of bad bones and osteopersosis, and on top of that I have another medical condition that puts me ever further at risk for it. So despite all the bad stuff I hear about dairy, I have made the personal choice that the benefits outweigh the risks. I would risk being gassy for being able to stand up straight when I’m an old woman, that’s just how I feel.

    Some recent immigrants may eat a western diet and not be built for it – for some it’s probably unhealthy. Maybe they’ve gained more weight than they would on their diet back home, maybe their diet isn’t the best here for what their lifestyle is. But maybe others beceome bigger because they are actually getting MORE nutrition, they weren’t getting enough before, and their weight gain is not a bad thing. Maybe some people are having lactose intolerance, but isn’t scolliosis and osteoperosis going down in those same immigrant groups?

    Even though we are getting bigger as a society, that statistic alone doesn’t tell us if we’re healthier or unhealthier. First off, certain things we will never know – you’ll never be able to change the way these people ate as a kid and find out “would they be healthier/not have this one health problem etc. if they did thus and so as a kid?” To me it would make sense that some are probably healthier than they otherwise would’ve been and others are unhealthier, but you could give yourself a headache going in circles debating that.

    Scientists can debate and try to figure out how we got to the state we’re in health wise, but we may never know. In the meantime we still have to deal with our health, and there are good aspects and bad aspects. I say everyone has to make health decisions every day, they are very personal choices. I don’t see this blog as saying “the most important thing to fat acceptance is science proving fat isn’t unhealthy” – we all know that even if that was scientifically universally accepted that still doesn’t mean society would accept fat. I think the most important things I read in this blog are just empowering people when they have to make those choices to feel good about doing what they feel is right for them and not feeling bad about it and second guessing yourself all the time.

  85. I think it’s a fantastic post that really helps me, as a budding FA advocate. The biggest hurdle I face – one I haven’t figured out how to jump gracefully, to continue the metaphor – in sharing some of the truth about fat with folks when I have the opportunity, is the assertion that environment does affect weight (including foods) and that the weight of Americans has seemed to increase over the past 50 years or so. I never feel like I have a good way to either say – yes, but, that doesn’t change what I’m saying or – that’s not actually as true as it seems, and it doesnt’ change what I’m saying anyway. This is a great start – thanks.

  86. One thing I’ve heard mentioned amongst the many reasons why people are getting bigger: antibiotics. Before antibiotics were generally available to fight childhood infections, kids were smaller because having and fighting off infection without antibiotics slowed or paused growth. And we can prevent or treat other previously-common childhood illnesses that may have had the same effects too. Kids aren’t unhealthy because they weigh more, they weigh more because they’re healthier.

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