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.


I think there was a 'perfect storm' of events and innovations that occurred in the 80's that may have contributed to the obesity spike.
There was a missing-child scare that escalated after Adam Wash's murder in 1981, with extremely inflated numbers reported on the new profit-center newscasts (formerly loss-leaders for networks), scaring parents. Sensationalized satanic cult stories at daycares were also reported. (All sadly untrue!)
The second and third generations of in-home video games brought 'safe' but sedentary entertainment to those same scared parents. Cable TV brought more and more high-quality in-home entertainment options.
The double drive-thru with short wait times made getting nutrition-lite, but calorie and carbohydrate-packed meals to kids that ate them easy and cheap. When I was a kid, it was home-cooked or nothing, and many times I chose nothing. Ewww, liver. And ran back outside to play. After also having skipped lunch, because I was interested in other things.
Pizza somehow became an acceptable dinner, perhaps because of the new fast delivery competitions, also around this time?
High-fructose corn syrup also seems to play a part, and is introduced near this time-frame. It also seems to be a factor in insulin-resistance.
Someone mentioned child safety seats...which ties into the drive-thru part of my perfect-storm theory.
Sadly, the fear of child abduction has never gone away, even though numbers are historically low, so helicopter-parenting continues, with organized and often slow-moving team sports replacing rigorous free play. And occasional fasting due to better things to do besides eat---does anyone let their kid skip a meal, anymore? Or play outside?
It's sad, really.



@greengrandma excellent post.

Jeff P

The timing of the obesity "epidemic" also coincides very closely with a major social change - mothers entering the paid workforce in the USA.

As others have mentioned, home-cooked food of the 1950s and 1960s often didn't taste very good, at least to children. When there was more money but much less time to cook, the obvious choice was to trade money for time and buy fast foods and convenience foods. These are cheap, plentiful, and delicious, to a child's tastes. So naturally, they eat more.

Now the children are in day care. That means one or two rooms and a small yard. If you're a daycare provider and let them roam about town, you might get sued. In my state you'd lose your license and may go to prison for that. So there's less exercise.

In evenings, there may be organized sports once or twice a week, as much as the parents can find time for. Otherwise it's video games.

Exceptions abound - my children grew up exactly as described above, and are nowhere near overweight.



Not only that, look at the prepared foods sold by the pound in grocery stores. There are over a hundred hot and cold items to choose from in the supermarket near me - Thai, Chinese, Italian, you name it. Look at the side parking lot in every Applebees/Chiles/Tullys restaurant, signs stating "parking for pickups only". Parents stop after work, pick up huge bags of takeout full of fat and salt.


It started when we changed from real wheat to the high-yield, short stalk wheat that was engineered in the 70s. Totally different molecular structure. Eating it stimulates appetite, spikes glucose, and causes a variety of other nasty side-effects. Don't eat industrial wheat!

Rebecca Jones

It would be helpful to come up with a single cause for the increased rates of obesity we are seeing, and there is one: the corporate political complex. Obesity is a symptom (a deadly one, I give you that). So is climate change, our healthcare system, the mortgage crisis, and the beginning of municipal failures (Detroit). What we see is an economy that has devolved into one that preys on the vulnerable. The food industry is able to manipulate fat, salt and sugar into an addictive combination, and market freely to children and the uneducated. the fossil fuel industry has taken a page from the tobacco playbook, to inject pseudo-doubt into the public discourse to freeze action on climate change. I argue, strongly, that obesity and climate change are even linked, since an answer to both is a transportation system that shifts from cars to busses, trains, sidewalks and bike paths (yes, even in rural areas). And then we have a medical system that blatantly profits off of illness, without making any moves toward advocating for meaningful prevention policies. The only way out of the mess is for the citizenry to come together and demand the government represent us and not corporations. And for that to happen, we will have to confront wedges such as bigotry and racism, which are being used to convince us that some are not worthy of the right to life, liberty and pursuit of health/happiness.



You might have something there, somewhere in there. If TPTB put a fraction of effort behind swaying people to take public transportation as they do in trying to up the birth rate by stomping on womens rights and enforcing childbirth....of course, they would actually have to make decent transportation a reality. They're cutting back on bus routes and don't get me started on the trains!

cezar higgins

People are lazy and video games seem to never end their progression in graphics and gameplay. I'm fit, just finished playing college sports, but I dont even go to the store to check out these new games because I know I will fall in love. I dont let myself get into all that. People just need to learn how to restrain themselves. Its easier said than done but let me say that I like pie too. Its just that tomorrow and the day after that will feel better if I don't say hi to doc blackberry and his ice cream accomplice. I have never been fat but I love food like no other. Sometimes I stare at it and talk mess to it and then eat those stupid baked chips to get decent taste while still feeling good about myself. Everybody struggles with it, but I think more than anything its about laziness and submitting to desire. These desires are easier to avoid with time. After I stopped eating fast food 3 months before the season and lasted about 2. The first time I had taco bell I may have ordered the whole menu. But the next day I didnt let that ruin my previous 2 months, I just treated it as a treat for hard work. I learn more and more that any foods in moderation really can't take you away from where you see yourself being. Its when we let those foods ruin the thought of healthier foods that we get into trouble. Also, people don't drink enough water. Speeds up your metabolism and gives you REAL energy and nourishment. We don;t need supplements from anything we drink as long as our diet is 60% hit 40% miss. We can research all we want of why the worlds getting fat but it seems as if while we research, one hand is on the mouse and the other is finishing off a cheeseburger.



Four words: Corporate Controlled Food Industry