, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 31-57

Culture and the evolution of obesity

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Human predispositions to fatness and obesity are best understood in the context of cultural and biological evolution. Both genes and cultural traits that were adaptive in the context of past food scarcities play a role today in the etiology of maladaptive adult obesity. The etiology of obesity must account for the social distribution of the condition with regard to gender, ethnicity, social class, and economic modernization. This distribution, which has changed throughout history, undoubtedly involves cultural factors. A model of culture is presented that has advantages over an undifferentiated concept of the “environment” for hypothesis generation. Cultural predispositions to obesity are found in the productive economy, the mode of reproduction, social structure, and cultural beliefs about food and ideal body size. Cross-cultural comparison can contribute to an understanding of the prevalence of obesity in some modern affluent societies.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the First International Congress of Behavioral Medicine, Uppsala, Sweden, in June 1990.
Peter J. Brown is associate professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, where he also holds an appointment in the School of Public Health. Within medical anthropology, his research interests include cultural and genetic adaptations to disease, the ecology of infectious diseases (particularly malaria), the effects of public health programs on demographic and economic change, and the social epidemiology of obesity.