The History of Obesity – How Long Have We Been This Fat?

One of my favorite musicals is “Fiddler on the Roof.” What does that have to do with the history of obesity? There’s a line in one of the songs (“If I Were a Rich Man) that says that he’d have his wife “with a proper double chin.” This story takes place before WWII, and it points out that to many people, being overweight was beautiful. If you’ve ever looked at paintings and statues, you may have noticed a similar trend.

To people who worked hard and had little food, being fat was desirable. Plump or fat women were highly prized, in part because they had to come from a wealthy background. Society doted on these pleasingly plump people.

How far back into history does this go? It’s a little hard to tell for certain. Certainly when people were nomadic, it was unlikely. Hunter/gatherer cultures today show us that this usually produces thinner body types with a much more healthy body mass index. Until people began cultivating the fields and herding domestic flocks, being fat was pretty much impossible.

When societies began to form, however, that changed. Sure, it took a lot of effort still to provide food, clothing and weapons, but people began to trade for items they wanted, they didn’t necessarily have to make it themselves. It became possible to get fat.

While most people point to famous people alive today, I’m going to leave them out. Instead, I’ll go back to Merry Old England for a bit. King George IV was extremely fat. His corset was for a waist of fifty inches. While what he died of is not specified, it would be an easy guess that his weight (and lifestyle) were part of the problem. It is rumored that Handel (composer of The Messiah) was also overweight.

It might surprise you, given the history mentioned above, that the connection between weight and health was recognized by Hippocrates. It took quite a bit longer for the general public to understand this fact. That began to occur in the 1600s. Study after study showed clear links between how much a person weighed and illnesses such as heart disease.

There was a setback in the 1700s. Doctors once again refused to believe there was a connection between food consumption and overall health. They decided it was either sin or some disease. However, that hiccup was disproved by the 1830s, and on both sides of the pond. English and U.S. doctors began to make the connection and instruct patients to choose their food with caution.

Obesity has been around for thousands of years. The problems it causes have been known for hundreds of years. Now, it’s up to us to figure out how to resolve it.

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Mary Bodel

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