Human Nature

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 31-57

First online:

Culture and the evolution of obesity

  • Peter J. BrownAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, Emory University

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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.

Key words

Obesity Culture Evolution Ideal body images