Why We Get Fat
by Gary Taubes
In 1934, a young German pediatrician named Hilde Bruch moved to America, settled in New York City, and was “startled,” as she later wrote, by the number of fat children she saw—“ really fat ones, not only in clinics, but on the streets and subways, and in schools.” Indeed, fat children in New York were so conspicuous that other European immigrants would ask Bruch about it, assuming that she would have an answer. What is the matter with American children? they would ask. Why are they so bloated and blown up? Many would say they’d never seen so many children in such a state.
Today we hear such questions all the time, or we ask them ourselves, with the continual reminders that we are in the midst of an epidemic of obesity (as is the entire developed world). Similar questions are asked about fat adults. Why are they so bloated and blown up? Or you might ask yourself: Why am I?
But this was New York City in the mid- 1930s. This was two decades before the first Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s franchises, when fast food as we know it today was born. This was half a century before supersizing and high- fructose corn syrup. More to the point, 1934 was the depths of the Great Depression, an era of soup kitchens, bread lines, and unprecedented unemployment. One in every four workers in the United States was unemployed. Six out of every ten Americans were living in poverty. In New York City, where Bruch and her fellow immigrants were astonished by the adiposity of the local children, one in four children were said to be malnourished. How could this be?
Fat in the Fifties
by Nicolas Rasmussen
Obesity burst into the public consciousness in the years immediately following the Second World War. Around 1950, the US Public Health Service (PHS) issued a brochure on “the greatest problem in preventive medicine in the USA”: obesity. The life insurance industry, working in collaboration with the PHS and the American Medical Association (AMA), launched a national drive, proclaiming “Overweight: America’s No. 1 Health Problem.” And no wonder, given that insurance company data and some local health surveys suggested that more than a quarter of the American population was significantly overweight or obese. By the typical measure of the day, anyone 10 percent above the “ideal weight” for a given height fell into the category of overweight—the ideal weight being that which the insurance industry found to predict maximum longevity. Those 20 percent overweight were classified as obese. The danger of excess weight was grave, because it was the leading predictor of heart disease, the nation’s top killer. […]
Stroke, cancer, and, most of all, heart disease leaped to the forefront as causes of death.20 By 1920 heart disease had taken the lead as the top cause of death; by the end of the decade, based mainly on evidence developed by Dublin and other insurance industry statisticians, health policy analysts came to believe that heart disease was also catching up with tuberculosis in terms of its total financial burden on the nation (despite the fact that heart disease tended to kill its victims later in their wage-earning years). Imposing double the economic burden of cancer, which would soon become the second greatest cause of death, heart disease had unquestionably become Public Health Enemy Number 1 by 1930. […] The [early 20th century] findings indicated a clear association between overweight and excess mortality. […] In 1930, Louis Dublin used this type of information as the basis for a groundbreaking actuarial study that specifically correlated overweight with heart disease.