The History of Obesity Revisited

(Photo: davidd)

We’ve blogged before about the obesity epidemic, and whether or not it is a recent phenomenon; John Komlos and Marek Brabec have argued that obesity rates actually began rising in the early 20th century. A new study (abstract; PDF) by Paul von Hippel and Ramzi Nahhas looks at 60 years of data on child obesity and finds that the increase in obesity rates started with children born in the 1970s and 1980s. Von Hippel wrote to us in an email:

Intrigued by the conflicting extrapolation results, Ramzi Nahhas and I decided to look at measurements that were actually taken before 1960. We analyzed the heights and weights of children in the Fels Longitudinal Study, an ongoing study that since the 1930s has measured children from shortly after birth until age 18. Most of the children come from the area near Dayton, Ohio, which is not a mirror of the nation but has an obesity rate that is close to the national average.

Our results lined up pretty well with the conventional wisdom, suggesting that the obesity epidemic is not particularly old but took off in the 1980s. We found that child obesity rates were low and stable among children born in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and part of the 70s, and then rose rapidly through the 1980s and 1990s. Unlike Komlos and Brabec, we did not find evidence that the obesity epidemic was underway earlier. We did see some evidence that girls (but not boys) were getting a bit heavier before 1960, but significant numbers of girls didn’t break into the obese category until after 1980. In fact, much of the increase in girls’ weight before 1960 consisted of girls moving out of the underweight category and into a normal weight range.

Another source of historical evidence comes from measurements on young men drafted into the military, who on average grew about 1.5 BMI points heavier in the hundred years between the Civil War and the first national surveys in the 1960s. That’s a meaningful change—about 10 pounds for a man of average modern height—but it’s not as large as the 2.3 BMI point (16 pound) increase that national surveys observed among young men over just the 20-year period between 1980 and 2000. In other words, after 1980 the average BMIs of young men increased at a rate more than seven times faster than the rate observed over the previous century.

While it may be true that BMIs have been increasing slowly for a long time, the increases observed in recent decades are much faster and have pushed many adults and children over the obesity threshold in a remarkably short time. The trend is distressing, but to reverse it we only need to turn the clock back to 1980. We don’t need to go back to 1900.

Mark Buehner

I blame Fruity Pebbles.


Did this start when everything went to corn? Corn sweeteners in sodas, ect...

Mike B

Reduced use of cigarettes is a big part of it. Nicotine is an appetite suppressant as well as a mood elevator. People switched from making themselves feel better through smoking to eating. Food also decreased drastically in terms of cost while alternatives, like cigarettes, increased.


Smoking affected childhood obesity?


I think part of the reason for the rise in obesity is portion size and how we entertain ourselves. I am 44 years old. When I was young, soda was a rare treat. My mother didn't keep it in the house. We were allowed one when we went to the movies or things similar to that. The large size soda at McDonald's in the 70's is now their small. We only had three channels. You were not going to parked in front of the tv all day. You would be outside playing sports or bike riding with friends. Now, kids and their friends are in front of a computer or game station. They sit down for hours and receive little to no exercise. A child that is overweight will probably be an overweight adult. It is hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Kids aren't going to be happy without a game system or cable tv. We must find a happy medium though.

William Banfi

One word - HVAC. Or I mean one acronym!

Caleb B

You mean, Air Condtioning? So central heat and air are to blame? Actually.....that could make a ton of sense.


...and like many bad things, it started with the U.S. government; in this case, the USDA food pyramid encouraging Americans to make breads & cereals their primary calorie source.


Agree completely! In the late 60's and early 70's the government decided to push grain based foods and demonize meat and fat (not to mention that food producers found they could replace real sugar with high fructose corn syrup which is being shown to be really bad for us). The complex carbs and sugar spike insulin, create insulin resistance in otherwise healthy people, the body then wants to store fat, and the satiation response is turn way down or off so we are always hungry. This plus the huge drop in activity our kids participate in and we get a lot more obesity.

Scott Templeman (@tallbonez)

child labor laws?


It all started when people started altering the food supply. Produce that makes it's own pesticides? That can't be healthy. Does the obesity rate mirror the growth of food allergies (The peanut table?)


The dramatic rise in obesity is likely the result of many factors some of which were meantioned and also the following...

Decreased Activity: Helicopter parents don't let their kids play outside dawn to dusk like the old days, video games, 2 car households, suburban sprawl means less walking as distances are too great to walk.

Diet: low breastfeeding rates, c sections causing an undesirable mix of gut bacteria, sweetened beverages make up 30% of calories and decrease thevrelease of satiety hormone, high fructose use as sweeteners, the push in the 1980s for a low fat diet meant that carbohydrates increased as a total percent of nutrition.

Genetics or more specifically epigenetics: obese pregnant women create obese children by the turning on or off of certain genes causing the children to have a lifelong tendency to gain weight.

Ill come up with more but need to go eat lunch:)


I remember the following being said in an interview by the (co?)founder of KFC: "I lifted the bag (with the meal) and thought "for a buck fifty it should weight more" so I said: let's throw in an extra scoop of mashed potatoes so people feel better about spending their money on it".

Some fast food chains decided to differentiate themselves by giving you "more" for the same money, not "better" for the same money - good strategy for the non-discerning, non-connoisseur American consumer. Then the "more" become the "norm" and what used to be a normal size portion is now met with "are you kidding me"


Perhaps belaboring the obvious here, but what goes into a fast-food "meal" doesn't affect your weight if you seldom, if ever, eat fast food. (I think I was 16 before I ate my first McDonalds' burger - and didn't like it.) So is it possible to separate out a population that consumes little or no fast food for comparison?


It's the corn based food supply. We cannot handle the insulin spike caused by it and trigger a fat storing response. Unfortunately not many American are aware of how much food is based on corn and a lot of people probably believe something made from "corn" has to be automatically healthy.

People will eventually figure it out but I don't know if that alone will reverse the trend.


Yet many people eat from that same corn-based food supply without getting fat. Many traditional cultures (Appalachia, the southwest Indians, traditional Mexico, etc) used considerable corn in their diets without suffering obesity.


It's the corn based food supply. We cannot handle the insulin spike caused by it and trigger a fat storing response. Unfortunately not many American are aware of how much food supply is based on corn and a lot of people probably believe something made from "corn" has to be automatically healthy.

People will eventually figure it out but I don't know if that alone will reverse the trend.

Stephen Howell

I am 62 and have been heavier than others my age since I was small. I didn't really get fat until I was 9. The odd thing for me is I am the only male heavy in either family going back two generations. So why me? There are a lot of possible reasons. First let me say it is not fast food or colas in that we never went out to eat or bought coke. I do think genetics plays a big role. People that know me just can't believe I am heavy based on what I eat. In addition to genetics I think TV played a role. No fat men but a bunch of fat women on mothers side. I look a lot like my moms mom and she was fat and died at 72. If you want to help people reduce weight go back to sugar standard instead of fructose. I know my body can't handle fructose and I think that is why people got fat in 80s.

Tom Lindholtz

This is not only consistent with conventional wisdom, it is consistent with the writings of Gary Taube. And, as a 66-year old born in 1947, it is consistent with my memories of myself and my friends growing up in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Nathan Dahlin

Though it is important to note that correlation does not necessarily equal causation, I think it's worth pointing out the following for your consideration:

"In 1980, Coca-Cola began using HFCS [High Fructose Corn Syrup] in its beverages, and by the mid 80s most other soft drink companies followed suit."