The Anthropology of Obesity

By Ethel Saryee & Daniel Lende

Last month the MedAnth Listserve crowd sourced a bibliography on obesity and anthropology, initiated by a request by Ashante Reese from American University. Reese, who works with obesity in African American populations, subsequently brought together everyone’s suggestions. We’ve compiled that list here, separating it out by topics and adding additional bibliographic selections.

The topics include evolution, biocultural perspectives, cultural perspectives, social determinants, change in diet, global economy, and health behaviors. At the end, we have added a selection of posts on obesity and food that we’ve written over the years.


Worldwide, multiple paradoxes have emerged as food distribution, access and consumption have changed dramatically. For the first time in history, in the course of a generation, households can go from malnutrition based on undernutrition to malnutrition based on overnutrition. Because of the health impact of obesity and of diet-related non-communicable diseases (e.g., adult-onset diabetes), many children will die before their parents.

Evolutionary analysis can prove indispensable when considering endemic obesity rates – obesity can be viewed as a problem resulting from the contrast between Paleolithic genetic programming and the present-day obesogenic environment. Biocultural perspectives are also important in comprehending how social processes become embodied, directly shaping individual exposure and reaction to obesogenic environments.

Ironically, obesity has become the plague of those most marginalized rather than an overindulgence of the rich. Economic status in the face of globalization has facilitated the increase of obesity through further marginalization of the poorest. Communities previously reliant on subsistence farming now must enter monetary work and rely on the cheapest, nutritionally devoid, factory produced food items. It is not uncommon now to observe communities experiencing a decrease in infectious disease and an increase in non-communicable diseases while simultaneously suffering from wasting and obesity.

In light of these phenomena, researchers everywhere are grappling with how to comprehend the multiple issues generated by skyrocketing obesity rates and rapid transition of dietary and physical behaviors. Anthropology with its holistic nature and ability to merge multiple paradigms is paramount for the study of obesity, its impact on multiple levels, and its historical and global causes.

Evolution and Obesity

Evolutionary conceptualization looks to define how our bodies today are shaped through micro and macro adaptations to various environmental pressures. The ultimate goal of the evolutionary process is to live long enough to pass on genetic material.

Obesity is viewed as a result of humans today being genetically “wired” for survival in a world of feast and famine, long past. Furthermore, “programming” occurring in-utero to ensure proximal survival and life history also contribute to later life obesity.

Armelagos, G.
2010 The omnivore’s dilemma: The evolution of the brain and the determinants of food choice Journal of Anthropological Research 66(2): 161-186.

Brown, P.J.
1991 Culture and the Evolution of Obesity. Human nature 2(1):31-57.

Brown, P.J., and M. Konner
1987 An anthropological perspective on obesity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 499(1):29-46.

Eaton, S.B., and L. Cordain
1997 Evolutionary aspects of diet: old genes, new fuels. Nutritional changes since agriculture. World review of nutrition and dietetics 81:26.

Eaton, S.B., M. Konner, and M. Shostak
1988 Stone agers in the fast lane: chronic degenerative diseases in evolutionary perspective. The American Journal of Medicine 84(4):739-749.

Eaton, S.B., and MJ Konner
1997 Paleolithic nutrition revisited: a twelve-year retrospective on its nature and implications. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 51(4):207-216.

Ember, C.R., et al.
2005 Valuing thinness or fatness in women: Reevaluating the effect of resource scarcity. Evolution and Human Behavior 26(3):257-270.

Lev Ran, A.
2001 Human obesity: an evolutionary approach to understanding our bulging waistline. Diabetes/Metabolism Research and Reviews 17(5):347-362.

Neel, James
1962 Diabetes Mellitus: A “Thrifty” Genotype Rendered Detrimental by “Progress”? American Journal of Human Genetics 14(4): 353–362.

Turner BL, Maes K, Sweeney J, Armelagos GJ.
2008. Human evolution, diet, and nutrition: when the body meets the buffet. Evolutionary Medicine and Health: New Perspectives, eds. W. Trevathan et al. Oxford University Press. Pp. 55-71

Ulijaszek, Stanley J.
2008 Seven models of population obesity. Angiology 59(2 suppl):34S-38S.

Biocultural Perspectives

It has been repeatedly observed that socio- ecological processes are expressed in our physiologies. The bio-cultural synthesis looks at the embodiment of social, economic, political, and other environmental processes that an individual is exposed to through their lifetime. From pre-conception to death, biology and culture influence each other in a continuous cycle.

Berlant, L.
2007 Slow death (sovereignty, obesity, lateral agency). Critical Inquiry 33(4):754.

Brewis, Alexandra A.
2011 Obesity : cultural and biocultural perspectives. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

McElroy, A.
1990 Biocultural models in studies of human health and adaptation. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 4(3):243-265

Moffat, Tina
2010 The “childhood obesity epidemic”. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 24(1):1-21.

Ulijaszek, S.J., and H. Lofink
2006 Obesity in biocultural perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology. 35:337-360

Social Determinants of Health

Health is determined by social standing. Repeatedly, health researchers have observed that an individual’s health can be defined by that individual’s social status. Demographics such as age, ethnicity, education shape our biologies and as a result our health.

Social determinants of health influence persons from preconception through development and into adulthood. Stress and insult as a result of social and political pressures are embodied in utero and remain present for the remainder of life, and even passed intergenerationally. Obesity is an observable result of a complex interplay of social determinants affecting individuals on the biological and epigenetic levels.

Aguirre, P.
2004 Socioanthropological aspects of obesity in poverty. Obesity and Poverty. A New Public Health Challenge 1(1):11-22.

De Garine, I., and N.J. Pollock
1995 Social Aspects of Obesity. Routledge.

Gordon-Larsen, P., L.S. Adair, and B.M. Popkin
2003 The relationship of ethnicity, socioeconomic factors, and overweight in US Adolescents* &ast. Obesity 11(1):121-129.

Parker, S., et al.
1995 Body image and weight concerns among African American and White adolescent females: Differences that make a difference. Human Organization 54(2):103-114.

Pena, M., and J. Bacallao
2002 Malnutrition and poverty. Annual Review of Nutrition 22(1):241-253.

Thompson, B. W.
1992 “A Way Outa No Way”: Eating problems among African-American, Latina, and White Women. Gender and Society 6(4):546.

Change in Diet

Dietary change has occurred with all major societal transitions. Diets changed from Paleolithic times through the agricultural and industrial revolutions. With the advent of globalization it is of no surprise that change is being observed in food acquisition, consumption, and preparation patterns. Obesogenic environments are on the rise with the homogenization of diet that occurs initially with an increase in consumption of traditional food items, and the subsequent introduction of fast foods, convenience foods, and industrialized food items that are nutritionally devoid. Malnutrition today is of a different sort characterized by “over” rather then “under“ nutrition.

Adair, L.S., and B.M. Popkin
2005 Are child eating patterns being transformed globally? East; &ast. Obesity 13(7):1281-1299.

Caplan, P.
1994 Feasts, Fasts, Famine: Food for Thought: Berg Publishers.

Caplan, P.
1997 Approaches to the study of food, health and identity. Food, health and identity:1ñ31.

Popkin, B. M., and P. Gordon-Larsen
2004 The nutrition transition: worldwide obesity dynamics and their determinants. International Journal of Obesity 28:S2-S9.

Obesity Culture

The recent skyrocketing rates of obesity worldwide have resulted in the subsequent enculturation of “obesity”. It has become critical to understand the human experience regarding obesity and the perceptions both emically (subjectively) and etically (objectively). Experiences are greatly varied per country, community, and individual. Obesity is culturally entrenched and any hopes of dealing with the health consequences should begin with cultural patterns and perceptions, including how obesity is internalized by society.

Brewis, A.A., A. Wutich, A. Falletta-Cowden & I. Rodriguez-Soto
2011 Body norms and fat stigma in global perspective. Current Anthropolgoy 52(2): 269-276.

Brown, P.J., and S.V. Krick
2001 The etiology of obesity: Diet, television and the illusions of personal choice. Obesity, Growth and Development (London: Smith-Gordon: 2001.) 111:127.

Cogan, Jeanine C., et al.
1996 A comparison study of United States and African students on perceptions of obesity and thinness. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 27(1):98-113.

Everett, M., A. Mejia, and O. Quiroz
2009 Building Evidence to Prevent Childhood Obesity: Lessons from the Portland Healthy Eating Active Living (Heal) Coalition. Practicing Anthropology 31(4):21-26.

Himmelgreen, DA, et al.
2004 The longer you stay, the bigger you get: length of time and language use in the US are associated with obesity in Puerto Rican women. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 125(1):90-96.

Kulick, D., and A. Meneley
2005 Fat: the anthropology of an obsession: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin

Lind, D., and Barham, E.
2004 The social life of the tortilla: Food, cultural politics, and contested commodification. Agriculture and Human Values 21(1):47-60.

McNaughton, D.
2010 From the womb to the tomb: obesity and maternal responsibility. Critical Public Health(1):1-12.

Nichter, M.
2001 Fat talk: What girls and their parents say about dieting: Harvard Univ Pr.

Ritenbaugh, C.
1982 Obesity as a culture-bound syndrome. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 6(4):347-361.

Taylor, Nicole
2011 “Guys, She’s Humongous!”: Gender and weight-based teasing in adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Research 26(2):178-199

Ulijaszek, SJ
2007 Obesity: a disorder of convenience. Obesity Reviews (8):183-187.

Health Behaviors

Health behaviors of the mother shape their child’s risk of being obese and thus the pressures of motherhood are further compounded. Interventions are now being targeted at the level of the uterine environment. This has given rise to discourse on “maternal morality” and maternal behavioral change in order to curb obesity in offspring. The idea of maternal influence on child life may give mothers a renewed self-efficacy and should result in a move away from previous fatalistic attitudes towards the inevitability of developing diabetes. Through this framework, the understanding that changing proximal behavior can have a positive affect on offspring health mothers can once again have control over their child’s health status.

Barker, DJP, et al.
2010 Beyond birthweight: the maternal and placental origins of chronic disease. Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease 1(06):360-364

Bell, K., A. Salmon, and D. McNaughton
2011 Alcohol, Tobacco and Obesity: Morality, Mortality and the New Public Health. Routledge.

Bell, K., D. McNaughton, and A. Salmon
2009 Medicine, morality and mothering: public health discourses on foetal alcohol exposure, smoking around children and childhood overnutrition. Critical Public Health 19(2):155-170.

McGarvey, S.T.
2009 Interdisciplinary translational research in anthropology, nutrition, and public health. Annual Review of Anthropology 38:233-249.

Wells, Jonathan C. K.
2010 Maternal capital and the metabolic ghetto: An evolutionary perspective on the transgenerational basis of health inequalities. American Journal of Human Biology 22(1):1-17.

Economic Influences

Obesity is a result of rapid entry into the global market for many nations experiencing it endemically. With more access to cheaper low quality foods and conglomerate advertising there has been a shift to adapting a “westernized” diet characterized by high fat, sugar, factory produced meat, and processed items. For many countries suffering endemic malnutrition, an influx of food as a result of entering a market economy is coveted; however few countries are prepared for the non-communicable disease burden that comes with it.

Gewertz, Deborah, Frederick Errington, and Corporation Ebooks
2010 Cheap Meat : Flap Food Nations in the Pacific Islands. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gracia-Arnaiz, M.
2010 Fat bodies and thin bodies. Cultural, biomedical and market discourses on obesity. Appetite 55(2):219-225.

Khan, M.
2006 The dual burden of overweight and underweight in developing countries. Population Reference Bureau. Accessed on line November 29:2007.

Wansink, B.
2004 Environmental Factors that Increase the Food Intake and Consumption Volume of Unknowing Consumers. Annual Review of Nutrition. 24:455-479.

Neuroanthropology Posts

Human biology and evolution

Food for Thought: Cooking in Human Evolution

Slides on Brain Evolution and Diet

Paleofantasies of the Perfect Diet: Marlene Zuk in NY Times

What’s in Your Gut? Termites, For Example

Red Meat, Neandertals Were Meant to Eat It

Obesity and human biology

Comfort Food and Social Stress

Successful Weight Loss

Fetal Origins: In the News, In the Womb

Calories Not Diets

On the Causes of Obesity: Common Sense or Interacting Systems

Genetics and Obesity

Human Biology and Models for Obesity

Obesity: Mortality, Activity and More

Obesity and Some Behavioral Biology

Fat Cells Die

Obesity and culture

Culture and Inequality in the Obesity Debate

Ethnography and the Everyday: Knapp’s Appetites

Obesity Meets Family Medicine

The Family Dinner Deconstructed

“Willpower,” biology and effort

Tightening Your Belt on Your Mind

The Sugar Made Me Do It

Laura’s Weight Loss

Experiments and Effort

Glucose, Self Control and Evolution

Dopamine and Eating

Sleep, Eat, Sex – Orexin Has Something to Say

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