The Obesity Epidemic: Has Prosperity Really Made Us Fat?

The obesity epidemic is often blamed on prosperity. Here's how the thinking goes. We've grown rich and affluent as a society. We enjoy access to an essentially unlimited supply of food. Instead of laboring in the fields, we spend our days inside, noodling on computers. As a result of our prosperity, we overeat and underexercise. Thus, we get fat.

We did not evolve to live among such abundance, argue the experts. We can't help but indulge ourselves in gluttonous and slothful pursuits.

But -- as science journalist Gary Taubes points out -- this theory cannot account for why obesity might occur in so-called "non-toxic environments." If we find examples of obesity in poor communities or in societies in which people don't have access to "superfluous calories" or an abundance of leisure pursuits, then the mainstream hypothesis has a problem.

1. In his book Good Calories, Bad Calories, Taubes carefully outlines and discusses outbreaks of obesity in many "non-toxic" communities such as:

  • The Pima Indians at the turn of the 20th century
  • The Sioux of South Dakota in the 1920s
  • Native American tribes in North Carolina and Arizona in the 1950s and 1960s
  • African Americans in the 1950s in South Carolina
  • Industrial Czechoslovakia in the 1970s
  • Rural Jamaica in the 1960s
  • Zulus in South Africa in the 1950s/1960s
  • Pensioners in Nigeria
  • Islanders in the South Pacific
  • [1]

People in these communities, Taubes argues, got plenty of exercise and physical activity. Many were poor. Many labored in places like fields and in factories. These people did not sit around munching chips and playing video games all day. Many survived on essentially starvation rations -- what we would call very low calorie diets.

So here we have examples of populations all getting fat and diabetic in environments in which:

a) There was not enough food. So a super-abundance of calories cannot be blamed.

b) The average person got lots of activity. So a sedentary lifestyle cannot be blamed.

2. The late Weston Price also wrote about obesity in non-Western populations. For more evidence along these lines, read Price's essays about differences between isolated and modernized peoples:

  • Switzerland
  • Ireland
  • Eskimos
  • North American Indians
  • Melanesians
  • Polynesians
  • African tribes
  • Australian aborigines
  • Torres Strait Islanders
  • New Zealand Maori

Insulinogenic factors in our diets seem to lead populations to become fat and unhealthy. How can you possibly escape this conclusion?

And as long our health experts keep recommending that we eat loads of carbohydrates, we're not going to stop the obesity epidemic because we're not restricting the most insulinogenic foods in our diets.

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1. Taubes, Gary. "Good Calories, Bad Calories." New York: Knopf (2007).

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