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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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December 31, 2007

The Poor Body

By Mark Sisson
38 Comments

Take a look at photos of your average poor American from the 1930s and now. What’s different?

The size of people. Throughout time, obesity has not been the problem it is today. And no clearer example of that can be seen than when looking at what it has historically meant to be poor. Until the advent of corn syrup and fast food and vending machines, being poor and being too skinny were synonymous. No longer.

For the first time in human history, poor people are fat. No Rubenesque beauties grace the cover of Vogue. Our supermodels and actresses are startlingly thin (The stunning Marilyn Monroe would be “full figured” by today’s standards). Thin is in. Gym memberships, chic yoga mats with designer totes, personal trainers, and expensive gourmet diets rich in brie and red wine are all glossy symbols of prestige and wealth. A voluptuous wife is no longer a status symbol for a well-to-do man; indeed, extra heft immediately implies poverty and lower class standing. Thin is rich. (It’s almost humorous, except the health implications quickly dampen that comedic irony.)

Thin is generally healthier than obese, but not necessarily. A person who is “skinny fat” – looking slender but suffering internally from inflammation, heart disease, or too much body fat – is worse off than a person who follows a healthy diet and gets regular exercise but happens to naturally be built a bit thicker. Still, authorities are concerned about the burgeoning rates of obese poor Americans. There are a few theories, some politically incorrect and some rather distasteful, in my opinion (guess which):

– The poor people are stupid argument: poor people are busy working or doing poor people things and don’t have access to the internet, health care, or other means of education regarding health and nutrition.

– The poor people are being kept in their place by The Man argument: junk food companies and lobbyists and the government are happy to fatten those poor people up to keep them in their place. Addicted, unhealthy, overweight people are easier to control.

– The poor people are fat because it takes lots of empty calories to get adequate nutrients argument. By far the most reasonable, in my opinion. Poor neighborhoods are notorious for being replete with junk food convenience stores and fast food joints instead of grocery stores selling fresh produce or farmer’s markets proffering affordable fresh fare. Hunger is complicated, as this article discusses. It’s a fascinating survey, so please be sure to read it. In short, it’s not just about getting enough calories to feel “full”. It’s also about getting enough nutrients. A jumbo candy bar with a huge soda and a bag of chips may be “filling”, but you’ll need to eat ramen noodles or a burger afterwards to get a decent amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Cheap food is what poor people can afford, but unfortunately it takes a lot more cheap food to meet minimum bodily requirements. Of course, one can eat cheaply and healthily – for example, fresh veggies and beans are quite inexpensive – which brings us back to the distasteful Poor People Are Ignorant argument.

Why are the poor so fat? And what is the solution?

Further Reading:

88 Deadly Fast Foods

Fried Oreos, anyone?

How did Americans not come up with this first?

The New Face of Poverty is Fat

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TAGS:  body fat

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33 Comments on "The Poor Body"

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LabRat
8 years 11 months ago
I’d attribute it to a decline and fall of the tradition of family cooking and family dinners. Cooking- and cooking on a budget and when dealing with time constraints- is a more advanced skill than most people realize, especially people who’ve folded it seamlessly into their lives and way of living. Free time is something Americans rich and poor alike value. A poor family of sixty years ago cooked because they had no other choice; now people can make the trade of a little less money for more time and convenience off fast food and preprepared items. Until relatively recently-… Read more »
Annie
Annie
5 years 8 months ago

Nope, I disagree with your general assuption. People are not so lazy as you claim. In a pinch, you can pick up a pre-made rotesseri chicken for a few dollars.

Kery
8 years 11 months ago
The link to the Wisebread article is broken (the ‘t’ at the end is gone). I unfortunately know this ‘phenomenon’ first hand. Growing up, my family had a lot of money problems, and as a result, most of our foods were pasta, pancakes, and stuff that would be made, in general, with cheap ingredients such as flour. Fruits and vegetables were almost always absent–there’s no wonder it took me 28 years to discover that veggies-lover inside of me, since I was never really ‘taught’ to eat and like vegetables. 🙁 Information (or perhaps taking the time to learn one’s own… Read more »
John Protevi
8 years 11 months ago
I think you need to connect the lack of lean meats and fresh veggies not to ignorance, but to geography, as you note in passing in your third theory: in lots of places poor people live (urban ghettos, rural enclaves) you don’t have access to good food in well-stocked supermarkets, but only to junky processed food in corner stores. There’s also a correlation of obesity and depression if I’m not mistaken, which makes some sense: the momentary sugar and caffeine high of soda helps lift your spirits, but only temporarily, setting you on a roller coaster and wanting another jolt… Read more »
Sara G
Sara G
8 years 11 months ago

Another concept not discussed: I would say that a lot of poor people will look for quantity of food versus quality. The buffet restaurants where you can load up for $7, a Big Mac versus fresh fruit for example.

I also agree with what LabRat said about cooking. It is definitely becoming more of a leisure hobby in our culture than survival skill. I love to cook, and it usually ends up costing more than going out would, but is always better tasting and better for me.

Issabeau
Issabeau
2 years 9 months ago

So true.
Eating out at an all you can eat buffet = $7.- (‘primal’ choices)
Cooking the same thing at home = $20.-

The difference is the quality of ingredients, I KNOW what’s in MY chicken salad.

Migraineur
8 years 11 months ago
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I have four things to add. First, it’s not universally true that poor people used to be skinny. Just one example: the Pima Indians, some of the poorest people in America, have had some of the highest obesity rates since they were pushed onto reservations decades ago and forced to live on white flour, sugar, tea, and other cheap foods instead of their traditional diets of game and fish. This may seem like a minor point, but if we don’t recognize that poor people have been fat for a long time (not… Read more »
markus
markus
8 years 11 months ago
Research since the turn of the century into the condition of Pima Indians demonstrates quite clearly the relationship between poverty and obesity. These people went from a rich hunter gathered semi settled community in harmony with their land: they were typical Indians – slim and active. Since the White man hunted out the region and used up the rivers further upstream, they became impoverished and survived off government stores…. Today, they live principally on flour and sugar. They are poor but fat.. but this carbohydrate induced obesity does not satisfy. Their concomitant hyperinsulinemia ensures, as Taubes demonstrates, that their fat… Read more »
MELANIE
8 years 9 months ago

I DONT THINK THAT IT IS RIGHT TO HAVE HOLE BUNCH OF FOOD AND NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT THE POOR.
I THINK THAT IT IS SELFISH AND YOU DESERVE TO GET FAT

cshsus
cshsus
7 years 9 months ago

Poor people are fat because junk food is a very inexpensive form of entertainment!

Rachel R.
7 years 9 months ago

Real food is more expensive than “fake food” (you know, that stuff that we eat that really doesn’t even deserve to be called “food”). The advent of big business and government interference (primarily) have created a situation where, for the most part, the cheapest food is nutritionally the emptiest, and you can’t afford really *good* food (nutritionally speaking) unless you have plenty of money. It used to be the other way around – the nutritionally empty refined stuff was “luxury” foods, while the poor largely ate off the land.

S.Smith
7 years 9 months ago

Yep, sugar, more and more refined, is a bad thing.

Stuart
7 years 5 months ago

Could it be that they’re fat because they’re also lazy. I’m not being horrible, I’d like to see if evidence for this correlates with them as well as the evidence for being fat. If it does, the reason could simply be that they can’t be bothered to cook well. Solution? Healthy (and cheap) ready meals.

Gwen
Gwen
7 years 2 months ago

Fresh veggies are not ‘quite inexpensive’. To maximize calories and minimize cost, you would do well to only buy heavily processed, fattening foods. If you have children, you can easily work two jobs and still be living under the poverty line. So, I don’t think the lazy theory holds water.

Jon
Jon
6 years 7 months ago
This post caught my attention! I know it’s a year after the fact! I started reading MDA blog not too long ago. I am a social worker in a very economically depressed urban setting. Most everybody around me – including my co-workers – think my primal nutrition and exercise (pull-ups on the playground while I’m watching the pre-school kids!) are CRAZY!!! I don’t eat fast food, drink soda, and NEVER use that awful vending machine. With the exception of one person, all of my co-workers and the majority of the clients we serve in this community are extremely overweight. You’re… Read more »
Neon Light :
6 years 1 month ago

there are lots of cheap foods on the market that taste like crap but there are good quality ones too *

Wermfud
Wermfud
5 years 6 months ago

So many of you people are so ignorant! I am overweight, poor, and disabled. I never eat junk food, fast food, sodas, or even juice.

I spend A LOT of money buying lean meats and veggies and fruit. Potatoes are cheap but don’t count as vegetables folks. It would save me so much money to eat at McDonalds or whatever those dollar menus are. Of course, that stuff is gross.

I exercise at least 1 hour everyday, lifting weights and/or elliptical trainer. I am not lazy.

I am stressed out. Anyone realize that stress slows down your metabolism?

Cheri
Cheri
3 years 10 months ago

I would be interested to find out how much HFCS is in your diet even hiding somewhere on the labels.

Helen
Helen
3 years 6 months ago
Possibly hidden malnutrition, malfunctioned colon, liver and pancreas and, maybe, overall acidity (salive, urine). Food goes in and not much of it used for a good by a body. There is a concept: not a one disease may be cured, but all of them will be cured if provide to organism what if needs to function properly. Maybe with exception of irreversible damage and affordability issue.If you can get in the library or see on Netflix “Hungry for a change”, it covers exactly how to make slow metabolism work properly again, real people who went through this speak out own… Read more »
Wermfud
Wermfud
5 years 6 months ago

As an example, 2 chicken breasts cost $8-$10 where I live in California. That’s only part of one dinner for 2 people, the veggies are extra. I think I can get 2 fast food burgers for $2-$4.

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5 years 5 months ago

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5 years 5 months ago

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Ambrose
5 years 2 months ago

I sort of discovered your web site by accident, but your blog caught my eye and that i thought that I’d post to let you know that I enjoy it.

MorningStar Leon
5 years 3 days ago

Are you really suggesting that ramen noodles provide protein, vitamins and minerals? They’re just another cheap source of nothing but refined starch, salt and fat, and they contribute to the problem.

jocelyn
jocelyn
4 years 5 months ago

You say at the end of this article that poor people can live a healthy lifestyle with affordable beans and veggies but in another article you say we are not meant to eat beans or legumes so I’m puzzled?
Can someone explain?

Lisa L
Lisa L
3 years 9 months ago
The poor eat poorly because they have not been trained otherwise. How can people know unless you teach them? They have grown up on poor food. Some examples include pasta, spagetti sauce in a can, mac and cheese, white bread, hamburger, hamburger helper, cheap pizzas, boxed frozen food, breaded chicken nuggets, peanut butter and jelly, etc. These foods are the same foods that people receive at the food banks. Fresh fruits and vegetables are available irregularly. How do I know? I have lived it. I have been to the food bank. Why is it different now? Because I have taken… Read more »
Brian
Brian
3 years 8 months ago
I’d attribute it to the junk food that’s readily available and considerably cheaper than health food. You walk into any store and you look at a package of say veggies or fruits, there is usually at least a $4-$6 price tag on it. These won’t even remotely fill you up. You then walk over to the crap food isle where the chips, chocolate and various other bad foods are hiding. Even the largest bag of chips you can find is under $4. Sometimes these stores sell pre-made sandwiches, hot dogs, and sub sandwiches that are cheaper than the fruits and… Read more »
vapid.ness
vapid.ness
3 years 6 months ago
I love this site! It’s the first primal diet site I’ve seen that doesn’t blame the poor for being fat. It’s also one the very few healthy eating sites I’ve seen that doesn’t accuse anyone not eating healthily of being immoral or stupid. Thank you! Between stress, depression and the cost of different types of food mentioned above, I’m a bit above what a healthy weight would be. Eating well and exercising can be a hard enough habit to bet into without being constantly discouraged. The improvement in how you feel when you eat better and do stuff can be… Read more »
Meade
Meade
3 years 10 days ago
I take offense at people who call curvy women “fat”, or women who are fat “curvy”. Neither is true. Having curves and a nice bosom is not fat. Its healthy. Some obese women say they are curvy, when they are simply obese. Thin women with low body fat do not look healthy to me. It looks manly and too masculine. Its kind of odd that some men prefer that look? I like women who look like women with women’s bodies. As far as poor people today are fattter- yes. Because mainly fast food is cheaper and, people didn’t eat out… Read more »
PH
PH
2 years 7 months ago

The difference is that poor people no longer live in tents??? Or is it that WIC wasn’t available back then?

In all seriousness, the problem is far more complex than you make it out to be. And a factory farmed rotisserie chicken isn’t going to solve the problem.

minxjinx
minxjinx
2 years 3 months ago
so false ! I’ve grew up in a poor foster care house and I was always under wight and i’m 28 have two boys and still poor and still wear a size 0-00 ,I keep trying to get any one to hire me so I can put more food on the table and buy some cloths that don’t have holes in them I don’t own a car I walk to buy my family food and water . my sons are not fat and we are still poor and we live in in cali in a major city where the cheapest… Read more »
Noni
Noni
2 years 2 months ago
I’ve become suddenly incredibly poor the past few months, and if you wanna feed two people for a month on $100, breads and pasta provide a lot of calories for very little money. You can even get it REALLY cheap if you get the stuff that’s about to expire, like a whole bag of rolls for a dollar. Pasta also isn’t perishable, so I know there will still be some at the end of the month. But I’m certainly not losing weight, even though I work out for 30min a day, walk my dog, and work a very active janitorial… Read more »
Courtney
Courtney
1 year 7 months ago
As someone who has been poor my whole life, I call bs on the whole “I can’t eat healthier because it’s more expensive”. Even though I once believed it. All of my adult life I’ve been skinny-fat. I struggle to gain weight when pregnant or otherwise, but I don’t lose weight either. I’ve also almost always lived on crappy carbs. Spaghetti, bread, rice, sweets, pop. Why? Because it’s “cheaper”. A couple years ago I discovered eating whole foods, and recently discovered primal/paleo. I also recently discovered that planning dinners for the week, and making a list based on that, actually… Read more »
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