December 2015

Obesity: A Brief Background

Obesity is a problem that has reached epidemic proportions, on a global scale. Since 1980, the numbers of obese people has more than doubled. As of 2014, six-hundred million adults (those eighteen and older) were obese, and, as of 2013, 4.9 million children (those five and younger) were either overweight or obese. 

The numerous ill-effects of this condition include reduced mobility, high cholesterol and blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, gallstones, cognitive dysfunction, depression, cancer, and asthma. Despite these documented facts and repeated efforts to make the public aware of the problem, matters do not seem to be improving. Yet, it was not always so, for there was time when obesity was extremely rare, if not non-existent.

Obesity is our bodies in an unnatural state. Historically, it is a fairly recent development, at least, as a commonality. A strong case could be made that is was the Industrial Revolution that laid the groundwork, for our current obesity problems. This period of time, approximately between the 1760s and 1840s, saw a shift in food production methods, wherein those of the traditional sort, carried out by hand, were dropped in favour of industrial technologies, in the form of machines. Many were liberated, from labouring in the fields to work in other areas; average income began to rise; and a greater number of the population began to enjoy an affluence not formerly seen.

Although this, generally, spelt a higher standard of living, it also meant more regular access to larger quantities of food. Obesity began to make its first appearance, in the upper classes, and average bodyweight began to rise in developed countries. Some authorities, on nutrition, have also decried refined sugars and chemically altered foods—both made possible by the Industrial Revolution—as contributors to obesity.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, our ancestors were, generally, a healthier, fitter, people. Food tended not to be as abundant as it is, today, but the food that was available was unaltered and natural, and one had to work for it, often through hard physical effort. Work capacity and lower body-fat percentages were, largely, incidental—a product of the day-to-day lives of people, from the age of the hunter-gatherer through the age of the Agricultural Revolution. That is not to say that no one was overweight or that all were possessed of robust and vibrant physicality, but gross excess bodyweight was, surely, the exception, rather than the rule.

For all the challenges we face, in overcoming the obesity problem, there actually are ways of dealing with it that are effective and straightforward. These range from dietary changes and physical exercise (“work,” to our ancestors)—which are covered, extensively, in literature—to methods, in the realm of medical intervention, such as the gastric balloon, and even hypnosis. And it follows that a return to a more appropriate body composition will lead to partial or complete reversal, or prevention, of the ill-effects of obesity.  How one goes about achieving that return is something to be discussed with his or her physician, but it can be done and should.