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.


By, do I agree with you! Same with me (I'm older than you). Back in MY mother gave us a bowl of cereal for breakfast (Sugar Pops/Cheerios/Frosted Flakes) or toast. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich or cold cuts for lunch (which we gobbled down fast in order to go back outside to play with our friends). Family dinner every day: meat (baked chicken, meatloaf, pork chops), boiled potatoes, and a vegetable. ONE serving of meat, that's all there was. (Spaghetti or stew on weekends, the best!). Salad -lettuce/tomato/onion with oil and vinegar if you wanted some. There was no soda in the house, we had it in restaurants sometimes, but we could take it or leave it. Charles Chips were delivered on occasion, the only junk food. Cookies and candy? Mom bought one bag a WEEK. When it was gone, it was gone till next week. She did make a box cake in a 9x13 pan and we did have store brand ice cream when it was hot out. We rode our bikes, walked almost a mile to and from school in all kinds of weather (90 degrees or -20 degrees), no one carted us around. Wanted to go somewhere? We took the bus to as close as possible and then walked the rest of the way...I stayed just a little over 100 lbs. all through high school and up to my mid-20's. Then I got a car, and that's when the weight came on, a little at a time. More sedentary, easy to go for fast food, less walking. Plus the aging process has to have something to do with it. And something overlooked: weekends spent in bars, in clubs, at parties, guzzling beer, Boones Farm wine, screwdrivers - pizza had been a rare once a month treat as a child, and now there was pizza everywhere, along with all the different fast food places.


Laurie Mann

We did have more junk food than that in our house in the '60s and '70s, and we loved our TV and 3 of the 4 kids in our family were fat. Our youngest brother took up track and is still fairly thin at almost 50. When you have the junk-food-habit early, it is really hard get over it. As a fat adult, I do get a fair amount of exercise, walk about 2 miles a day, mow the lawn, shovel the walk, et.c. But I think having less junk food in the house and getting more activity are both very helpful.

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.


Absolutely - if you were around or have seen pictures of all of the swimming pools in the '60s, they were jam packed over the summer. Kids were outside playing all day. The Lions Clubs couldn't keep up with building new pools, making hand over fist. Now the Lions Clubs have been divesting themselves of the pools, many of which have fallen into disrepair. Attendance is dwindling while everyone stays inside their nice, air conditioned houses. Going from freezing cold A/C to hot and humid outside is particularly uncomfortable, so many people avoid going out altogether - many people can spend a day virtually never being outside, especially if they have an attached garage and a parking garage at work. I say this as someone who loves his air conditioning.


...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?)


Why is Joe's comment hidden "due to low rating" when the ratings are higher than most of the other comments?? In addition, he is correct. The big corporations such as MonSatan have indeed altered the food supply and corrupted it in numerous ways, such as gmos, high fructose corn syrup which the human body cannot process, refined white flour which depletes the body of minerals and nutrients, mineral deficiant salt, hormone and steroid pumped meat and milk, artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame which turn to toxic formaldyhide in the the human body, etc. etc. etc. Looks to me like Joe is spot on. His comment should be visible for all to see


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:)


The rise of child safety seats and the drive through restaurant.


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.


Are you kidding? SW Indians and the rednecks of Appalachia are among the most obese US citizens.


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."


Yet why would HFCS in Coca-Cola or other soft drinks cause the part of the population that seldom or never consumes soft drinks to gain weight?

Charles Ingram

It would be interesting to see if, as is being suggested by some, you would find a correlation between the rise in obesity and the introduction or broader use of HFCs in just about all processed foods.

Mark Sanders

I have no scientific proof of this, but I think perhaps all those little new environmental chemicals cruising through our bodies - PCBs, fireproofing chemicals, various chemicals leaching from plastics, herbicides, etc., etc., all ultimately have an effect on our bodies. Perhaps obesity is one of the effects.


But those same environmental chemicals course through the bodies of marathon runners, bike racers, bodybuilders, and just about every other athletic person. Why are we not overweight?

Indeed, the same chemicals (or perhaps more of them) would likely be found coursing through my dogs & horse, but they don't gain weight unless I let them laze around eating their heads off.

Melissa Belvadi

That sounds logical, until you look at tobacco. Many people smoke heavily and never get cancer (think George Burns smoking cigars until his death at age 100 from a heart attack). That doesn't mean that tobacco doesn't cause cancer. It's quite possible that there are man-made chemicals in the environment that interact with something we haven't identified that's present in, say, 40% of the population's genetics, that triggers obesity.

Carlos G

Can't believe nobody has said this. How about the proliferation of fast/processed food!


Grilling is a "process". Eat raw meat!


What was the definition of "obese" pre-BMI?

How is BMI an accurate measure of obesity?

How accurate is BMI as a predictor of fitness level?

pistol pete

School lunches.

bryce richards

My question would be. Does it take into account body fat %? As anyone who is a fitness person knows, this is a better measure of overall health than BMI .