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obestity and the industrial revolution
Oct 4, 1999

Do you think that the industrial revolution has any part in America's obesity problem? Why or why not?

I'd appreciate if you had your research sited.

Response from Dr. Fisher

Great question.

There is very little obesity in peoples that work on the land. Obesity in fact has much more to do with activity than food intake, in a broad sense. A rice farmer in China eats much more than an American office worker; but the sedentary person eats more than he or she "needs" (burns by activity) whereas the farmers eat the same or even a little less than they "need" (burn by activity). Most people have trouble believing that Americans eat less, not ,more; but it is so.

So why don't we in Industrial societies just match less intake with lower needs? One answer is that the foods that we eat are very "energy-dense". They are high in fat or sugarand don't fill us up as easilly. Try to eat a very low-fat diet for long and you will see how much food it takes to eat a daily ration, without sweets and fatty foods. These energy-dense foods are not common in nature and were not generally available before industrialization. Fried foods, for example, were almost unheard of except to rich people, untill fats became cheap and widely available for cooking.

Interestingly, even the animals that we eat are different than back in hunter-gatherer times. A wild elk, caribou or boar has almost no body fat; it is like eating fish or vegetables, almost. A domesticated cow or pig is completely different: full of saturated storage fat. So the sedentary nature of our food animals, almost as much as our our sedentary life-styles, contributes to obesity and heart disease!

Some examples to make the point. The Pima Indians of the American southwest have among the highest incidence of obesity and diabetes in the world. Many researchers have used the Pima of an example to support the genetic nature of obesity. But the Pima have a closely genetically related cousin group in the mountains of Mexico. And this society, which still lives a traditional life-style, has almost no obesity.

The biggest changes in the West in the past 30 years are less and less physical activity, and more and more obesity. You can show a relationship between telephone poles and obesity, for example. Obviously the telephone poles don't cause obesity, but are a marker of something else (i.e. less physical activity). And you can show in children a relationship between T.V hours per week and likelihood of obesity. All these factors are clearly related to "industrialization" in some manner.

The big change in the developing world over the past 20 years is urbanization. People are leaving the farms and coming to the huge cities of South America, Southeast Asia, etc. And, guess what? There is an international epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in places where it was unheard of a generation ago!

So it is hard to draw any conclusion other than what you suggest in your question. Living in cities, living a sedentary life, eating rich (domesticated or processed) foods, and whatever else goes with urbanization/industrialization, represents the necesary precondition for obesity.

None of which means that obesity is inevitable, but only that it takes an effort to avoid for a lot of people under industrial/urban conditions.

Marc Hellerstein, M.D., Ph.D.


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