Gary Taubes on Why We Get Fat (Transcript)

And actually shortly thereafter a physician turned anthropologist named Alex Hrdlicka came to visit the Pima tribe. He was doing a series of explorations in the American Southwest. And he also commented about how obese they were. And what’s interesting is our hypothesis says increased prosperity causes obesity. But here we have an example where they were prosperous and affluent in the mid-century, they go through twenty to thirty years of famine. And then they have an obesity problem in 1902 when they were extremely poor. And 20 to 30 years of famine you could think of as twenty to thirty years on a low calorie diet, right? These people should be lean, if not, emaciated and yet there’s a obesity problem.

So one of the things I did as I said, I went through the research looking for examples like this populations in which obesity levels were measured prior to the 1980s when it became a cottage industry and everyone blamed it on McDonald’s.

So one of the first ones you see it, Sioux Indians on a South Dakota Crow Creek reservation 1928. This was a study done by University of Chicago economists and they went to live on the reservation. And what’s interesting yet, the living conditions were poor beyond our imagination. As matter of fact, in 1927, there was a government report on living conditions in the Indian reservations, and they said they were poor beyond the imagination of the Anglo Americans living in 1927 and here there were 48 people living per room. 15 families with 32 children among them on this population were living on bread and coffee. They had to go to the river to get water. Their toilets were outhouses and yet you have obesity levels that are not that dissimilar to what we have today. 40% of the women, 25% of the men and 10% of the children were distinctly fat. And 20% of the women, 25% of the men and 25% of the children were extremely thin. And in fact, they were on – this combination of obesity and malnutrition or emaciation is a very important observation I am going to come back to it.

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But there was plenty of signs that these economists reported the malnutrition deficiency diseases on the population. Certainly these people weren’t getting enough food and they weren’t getting enough protein. They weren’t getting enough minerals and vitamins. And yet they had this high level of obesity – poverty and obesity.

African-American, the Charleston South Carolina 1959. 30% of the women are obese, 18% of the men and the family incomes are $9 to $53 a week. That’s about $360 a week in today’s money.

Zulus in Durban South Africa, 1960. 40% of the women are obese. Women in their forties averaged 175 pounds. Women in America today average around 165 pounds.

So they’ve got again this obesity epidemic in this population and we want to explain that too, not just obesity today.

Trinidad, in the early 1960s, there is a malnutrition crisis going on in Trinidad. Trinidadians are dying of deficiency diseases. The U.S. government sends a team of nutritionists down to help out and these nutritionists come back and they report that a third of women over 25 were obese. And obesity is a potentially serious medical problem in women.

And the next year, an MIT nutritionist goes down to Trinidad to quantify the diet that they were eating, and she reports that the obese women are eating roughly 2,000 calories a day; it’s 21% fat. It’s a low-fat diet, less calories than recommended at the time by the Food and Agriculture Organization for healthy diet. And yet there is explosive obesity in the population.

Bantu pensioners in South Africa mid-1960s, the poorest of a disenfranchise black South African population, and yet 30% of the women are severely overweight.

Rarotonga in South Pacific in 1971. 25% are grossly obese. Factory workers in Chile – okay, these people, they’re working and they’re engaged in heavy labor. You’ve got 30% obesity, nearly 50% of the women over 50 and 10% suffer undernourishment. So there’s a combination again of obesity and not enough food existing in the same population of factory workers in Chile.

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And the key observation there – again they’re doing heavy labor like this Mexican American study that was done in 1981. Starr County Texas is about 200 miles south of San Antonio on the Mexican border. A University of Texas Southwestern cardiologist named [William Mueller] was down there studying diabetes in this population and he measured obesity as well. And he reported that 50% of the women in their fifties were obese, 40% of the men in their forties.

And the living conditions, most inhabitants are employed in agricultural labor and/or work in the oil fields in the country. These are hard-working people. Okay, they may not be running marathons or training for triathlons, if you’ll excuse me, they may not be doing CrossFit or belonging to gyms. But they’re working out in the oil fields, they’re working in the fields and they have high levels of obesity and they’re poor. There was actually one restaurant in Starr County Texas in 1981, a Mexican restaurant.

So there’s no aspect of this toxic environment that we think of it today, no fast food joints, no televisions, no video games. They are not keeping their children home from school. They’re not sedentary. They’re not white collar workers, and yet they have high levels of obesity.

Yet why are these populations fat?

So the question you want to ask is: why are these populations fat? Okay, because if we can figure out why they’re fat, we can probably figure out we’re fat, and our explanation for what makes us fat should encompass these populations also. So our toxic environment theory, or increased prosperity theory can’t explain poor hard-working populations with high levels of obesity.

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