A Different Obesity Timeline

The obesity epidemic is generally portrayed as a relatively recent phenomenon, but new research paints a different picture. John Komlos and Marek Brabec find (gated version here) that obesity rates actually began rising in the early 20th century, with significant upsurges after the two World Wars. The authors point out that “the ‘creeping’ nature of the epidemic, as well as its persistence, does suggest that its roots have been embedded deep in the social fabric and are nourished by a network of disparate sources…” Komlos and Brabec point to factors like the industrialization of food production, the spread of automobiles, the spread of the media, the IT revolution, and the growing culture of consumption in America to explain the trend.[%comments]


Makes sense. Also seems like all those factors have become much more significant recently. Further, "eating out" seems to be much more prevalent in the last 20 years or so, but I can't see the paper, so who knows...

Murray Bolesta

An important factor is the concurrent decline of smoking among adults in the U.S. since the 1970s - one vice directly replacing another


As a former smoker, I can point out that weight gain comes into play just as soon as you stop smoking. I have noticed the same from friends and family members who used to smoke.

I think modern conveniences (e.g., auto, and basically anything else that substitutes for you having to get your rear-end off of the couch and move around) have played even greater role. Back when I was attending an elementary school, it was normal for me and for my classmates to walk almost an hour to school, then another hour to come home. Grocery shopping? Walk. Need to go to a local government office or drop by a bank? Walk. In short, you get to burn a plenty of calories without even thinking about it! This is hardly the case today.

Changinig dining habit also plays a role. In the past, I used to eat meals with my family, which was a very good thing on hindsight: You get to take your time, eat and drink slowly whiile having conversations. By contrast, I get to pig out during weekends because my busy weekday schedule means I cannot take my time over meals. Not very healthy. Furthermore, if you have to prepare your own meals (not just cooking, but also running grocery shopping and washing your own dishes), you are less likely to overindulge yourself.



If I have to choose between a 'non-obese' weight combined with the lifestyle of the late 1800s versus an obese weight in with today's lifestyle, I'll take the fat jokes.

(P.S. I realize it's not a zero-sum game... I'm just sayin'.)


Technology makes us fatter...
- Driving instead of walking
- Elevators instead of climbing
- Saving the SUPER-obese with medicine. Evolution should only favor slightly overweight people.



True! We're not as active as we used to be. We eat more fatty foods and carbs.

Back in the day, our vegetables came from my grandmother's garden behind the house. She canned things to tide us over the winter. Fruit was provided by farm stands where she'd buy the "day olds" by the bushel or crate and what we didn't eat that day, she canned for the winter. And she had a cold cellar for the potatoes, onions and root veges.

Washing was hung out on the line - sheets were heavy - the washing machine wringer didn't wring out much.

I walked to school one mile each way four times a day (I went home for lunch). After school, my friends and I played outside until dark, unless it was raining.

Now, people park as close to the store as they can, they won't even walk 20 feet to their car if they don't have to.

But my fingers are nimble from typing so much on my computer!


I remember a short news item here in the U.K. on how central heating affected British society in the long-term.

I wonder if climate-controlled buildings, reducing the bodys' need to expend energy to maintain homeostasis, have had a discernable effect on the locations and growth of obesity.

Many of the other technological propositions seem to be surrogate variables for other causes of obesity.

Shay Guy

Question is how to shift an entire culture to have better nutrition and be more physically active when it doesn't "need" to.

doug m

People are taller. BMI is biased against tall people. BMI=weight^2/height. Wieght / volume is a cubic measure.

BMI is a screwball number. Tom Cruise is obese.

Fewer people are starving. That has been moving the numbers higher over the years.

There seems to be a social aspect of obesity. Fat people have fat freinds.


No parent drove their kids to school in the 1950's. Now every one does.

Kids used to drink water when they were thirsty. Now they drink high fructose corn syrup in various forms.

Kids used to ride their bikes & play outside all the time. Now they sit at home playing video games.

I've seen home movies from the 1930's & 1940's and very few of the kids (or adults) were fat. Now most of them are. As far as I know, the kids back then weren't smoking cigarettes to keep their weight down.

#7 is on to something with centrally-heated buildings. Turning down the thermostat can cause the body to spend a lot more calories just staying warm.


How about being on your feet at a factory or farming job vs. sitting on your duff in an office? I'll bet the obesity trail follows the transition of the labor force quite nicely.


Lystraeus and Sceptical are indeed on to something with climate control. Speaking as one from the southern U.S. (where 95-100 degrees in the shade is the norm from late May to early September), one has to wonder about the impact of air conditioning.

Without air conditioning, there is no reason not to spend time working and playing outside in the summer--often it's cooler outside (where at least there's a breeze) than in an uncooled structure. With air conditioning, who honestly chooses to sweat it out being active during the summer when you could sit in 72 degrees of comfort inside?

Unlike indoor heating, which is a survival need and has been around as long as people have, Indoor cooling is a modern convenience that became mainstream in the post-war years (suspiciously close to the beginning of the obesity "epidemic"). I'm sure there are a multiplicity of contributing factors, but I would be interested to see a graph of the number of U.S. households with air conditioning over time superimposed on a graph of obesity statistics.


Morgan Downey

Actually, studies where data was kept for longer periods than the US, e.g. Switzerland, show obesity rates were increasing as far back as the 1850. The longitudinal data indicate that populations having been getting both heavier and taller over a long period of time. The implicaiton is that genetic and epigenetic changes in humans has met technological changes resulting in much higher rates.

Steven Tray

A high degree of correlation says little about causation.
I bet that every modern "convenience" correlates strongly with the obesity epidemic and our lengthening life span. I'm sure people were "lazy", conserving personal energy, since the caveman (caveperson).

Gaining weight easily and quickly were survival advantages between famines. No longer an advantage. Genetics explains all. We need to wait for genetic change.


I have some light to shed on this matter.

When I was in High School, around 1980, I went to weight watchers. The woman running the class said she had a problem with older overweight people who had lived through WWII. It was kind of like Gone With the Wind:

"As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!"

And it caused problems, because back then, people were apparently more committed to sworn statements.

Glad to be able to contribute a smidgen to the great Freakonomic knowledge base.


This would probably only account for a very small part of the increase in obesity but I wonder how much of society's extra fat can be explained by the fact that our average age is going up. Anyone know at what age a person tends to reach their fattest? I'd guess that a person gets their heaviest some time in their 40s and it was during the 1990s that the baby boomers on average were hitting that age and the median age for the country has been getting older since then or so Gapminder tells me: http://tiny.cc/xu602

So my gut tells me that maybe 20% of this upward obesity trend could be explained by the fact that the baby boomers have entered the fat phase of their lives. Maybe if I had a BMI over 30 though my gut would tell me something different.

Definitely not more than 20% though since I know that obesity is not only a problem of middle age and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that obesity incidence is growing faster among everyone under 18 years of age than for everyone older than 18.

I also wonder how well the median age statistic in the Gapminder graph I linked above is related to our big generation, the baby boomers, getting older. I can think of two other obvious factors that would affect the median age, but they offset each other. People are living longer and that's going to pull the median age up, but also fewer infants are dying and that's going to pull the median age down.



Hey doug m

BMI is equal to weight divided by height squared. You had it backwards. I don't think the fact that the population is growing taller is skewing the BMI numbers.

And you're right, BMI is screwy when you're talking about athletes. And you might be right calling that a mitigating factor because our body builders nowadays are probably 100 lbs heavier than their predecessors in the 1950s. Ronnie Coleman has muscles that Charles Atlas didn't even know existed.


I think the obesity trend in the US was egged on by the nationwide acceptance of the "eight 8 ounces glasses of water" idea that started in the late '80s, early '90's.

The phrase "eight 8 ounces glasses a water" came from a researcher who was breaking down how much we eat in a day. Someone asked how much water we drink and he answered, "About 64 ounces or eight 8 ounces glasses but, that come mostly from food we eat." The end of the sentence was lost and everyone started adding drinking water, a lot of water to their everyday routine.

I believe we have all enlarged our stomachs with all this liquid. In turn, we have super-sized our drinks accordingly. I look to my parents, who have never been really overweight. They drank coffee in a teacup, orange juice in a 4oz glass. I never saw them down a 8 or 12 ounces glass of water, ice tea or beer unless they had just done something like cutting the grass in July.

If it is true that we need an extra 64 ounces of water a day to keep from being dehydrated there should be a noticeable change in the number of people going to the ER for dehydration and heat stroke prior to 1990.


Ayurveda group

As we continue to grapple with Obesity, a question that is not getting too much attention is the role Alternative systems of medicine like Ayurveda can play in controlling / curing Obesity. A system based on Nature can not be all that bad :-)

Colin Purrington

Elastic in waistbands, coupled with cheaper clothing that can be replaced when fat deposits strain the seams. Then enter Spandex and Lycra, etc. Prior to these developments, clothing was an exoskeleton of sorts that constrained growth. E.g., can't really buy new armor after holiday binging...costs too much.