The Poor Body

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

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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33 thoughts on “The Poor Body”

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  1. 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- when the effects of that really started to hit- not having to cook was a sort of luxury, and a status symbol at that. That’s not true anymore, but the skill set required to make big, cheap family meals on a budget of both time and money has eroded in the meantime. Now cooking is seen as practically a luxury/leisure activity in and of itself, and not cooking because you “can’t afford the time and fancy ingredients” (even though that’s not true, but the people who knew better are dying off) is the norm.

    Poor immigrant families DO cook, because the tradition has been preserved up to far more recently in their culture.

    1. 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.

  2. 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 tricks?) is a key, though. Since I’m on my own and am trying to eat in a healthy enough way, I’ve experimented with, and discovered, lots of things.

    Eating crap IS more expensive, probably for the reason you mentioned, even if I had never thought of it this way. When I consent to ‘sacrifice’ money to buy fresh fruits/veggies/lean protein/etc., I tend to eat less overall, likely because I get the nutrients I need, so at the end of the month, the bill is not as big as I’m afraid it will be. But you don’t learn that overnight. It takes experimenting and comparing prices, and learning how to cook healthy and fast, so to say.

    All in all, some empty calories food are indeed cheaper. But IMHo the trade-off isn’t so great nor such an advantage in the end.

  3. 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 (but with diminishing returns, as we know).

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

  5. 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 just recently), we will not get very far in understanding causes.

    Second, because of things like farm subsidies, giant agribusinesses, monoculture, and the like, many of the cheapest foods are high-carbohydrate grain products – those that provoke a large insulin response. Heck, even candy and soda are grain products now, loaded as they are with high-fructose corn syrup. And as you know, Mark, insulin is the hormone that not only causes fat storage but prevents stored fat from being used.

    Third, I just ran across this on Regina Wilshire’s excellent blog, Weight of the Evidence. It suggests that obesity might indeed be a variety of malnutrition. I wrote my thoughts on a comment there, but since her comments are moderated, it might take a while to show up.

    Finally, government nutrition policy, which as you know is totally **ed up, probably affects poor people disproportionately. If a middle-class family wishes to buck the conventional wisdom and eat full-fat foods and red meats instead of fat-free dairy products, soy, and whole grains, they are perfectly free to do so. If a poor family wishes to do so, tough luck, they have to buy what’s allowed by WIC.

  6. 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 reserves remain locked in. They have to continue eating the junk they get from the government to assuage their carb induced hunger cycles. How the poor are kept poor and infirm….!!!!


    It’s a myth that a low carb high fat diet has to be expensive. The cheapest cuts o f meat in the UK are the healthiest – the fatty cuts and organ meats are dirt cheap because everybody thinks they are unhealthy. Eggs are very affordable and so is cheese and full fat milk. Veggies and fruit are also cheap. Because we need much less bulk on a low carb diet, we need less food overall… Not endless bags of crisps, bumper bottles of coke or biscuits and cakes….

    I haven’t totted up the costs, but I bet one could live a supremely fit an healthy low carb lifestyle as cheaply – if not more so, than on the standard obesogenic poverty diet of today’s overweight Westerners.

    Us middle classes can pay for unpasteurised milk and organic, outdoor reared produce of course, which is expensive, but the general benefits of cheap animal and plant products far outweigh the marginal benefits of a few extra vitamins and finer quality meat. Anyway, cooking up a good French provencal chicken using cheap meats and butter and cream will still taste dam good whatever.


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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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 right, junk food, and a lot of it. Very little exercise unfortunately.

    In my opinion, it’s a combination of things: bad habits, poor modeling of nutrition, immediate access to junk and limited availability to good food (many people don’t have transportation), laziness to prepare a meal (I know this excuse occasionally!), and cultural expectations (in this community, you cannot be African-American and not eat copious amounts of fried chicken with gravy, corn bread, Long’s Donuts, cheesy macaroni, and sweet tea). In a weird sense, fitness is almost viewed as a ‘white people’ thing. This is unfortunate, but currently reality.

    We are doing things to change this mindset in our community. Any suggestions would be great!

  13. 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?

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

    2. 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 experiences.

      Roughly detox (to make organs work again) and real food and raw juicing (big affordability issue). You can follow up the ideas on Internet. Another documentary, “Food matters” covers insufficient vitamins and supplements.

      After this, good things to read are how to cleanse bowels, what mucous plaque in it blocking villii from absorbing food and what to do about it cheaply (I went for bentonite clay/psyllium husks shake, because Okra-Pepsin-E(sp?) is not available here and is more expensive).

      Cleansing/flushing kidney and liver requires a lot of reading and comparison, flushed previously unknown stones may be olive oil saponins and salt flush is a big no-no for hypertonics and Graves disease.

      Universal detox are organic coffee enemas, for those who able perform them or agree to, costs $10 bag of organic coffee. Another one is bentonite clay, better food grade, but I used both food and pond use, both high quality. Internally (read more on the Web) and/or bath with it (externally). Baths require more and therefore more expensive. !00% pure bentonite clay may be used, as I had read, but it’s not available here, can’t say from personal experience. Internal use Terramin is not swelling and easier to digest, but is more expensive.

      Low carbs and raw juicing certainly helped (you have to be able to handle cost, work involved, and there are storage issues. Vitamins from “Food matters” (or A. Saul on Internet) in high doses improved situation even further. Fermented food was used before and by itself didn’t help much, this is only part of what has to be done.

      Meat and veggies by themselves, even with probiotics and digestive enzymes and vitamins in conventional doses didn’t work by themselves.

      I’m on first one third of a process, much better already. But – oh, boy – amount of work and expenses involved are near to impossible.

      The general idea of curing all disease, within reason, is appealing. There are alternative cancer (and other diseases) curing sites, listing cheap natural protocols that helped for many diseases and conditions: alkalizing (better by food and clays), sugar and white bread free diets, aloe and honey by Father Romano Zago, Dr. Budwig diet (flaxseed oil and cottage cheese diet). Worth to take a look at them after finishing with detox and food.

      I wish you well!

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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?

  18. 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 time to study and learn what is best for my body. Before, I ate for survival. Now, I eat for health.

  19. 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 veggies. Even the damn can of pop is usually 50% less than a simple bottle of water

    So what is a person going to do? Spend maybe $5-6 on a sandwich, chips and pop? Or are they going to spend possibly up to$8 on some veggies and a bottle of water that won’t fill them up?

    It’s crystal clear what people do.. there isn’t a lot of money or time to go around so people will inevitably grab the stuff for the most bang for the buck. That is unfortunately the bad food. This is evident anywhere. Any supermarket, any convenience store, anywhere that sells food.. the bad food is quick, easy, and cheaper.

    How might people’s health look is suppose these same fruits and veggies were sold for $1 and water was $1, and it was the processed sandwiches that were $10, chips another $10, and pop say $5. How many people then would lean towards the bad food?

    You ask anyone why they think the bad food is far cheaper than the good food, and they will always tell you shelf life. Well the reason the good foods sit on the shelves so long is because often they are over-priced and people cannot be bothered. Swap the prices around and watch how quickly the good food flies off the shelf

  20. 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 completely wiped out by ignorant snobbery. Luckily we have a subsidised gym and relatively cheap good food where I live in Scotland, and everyone at the gym is full of endorphins so it’s nice to go. I’d like to spend more time outdoors but the cold and wet sometimes puts you off, it’s nice to be able to go to the gym. There’s lots of greens to forage and if I was better at gutting etc there’s a bit of roadkill (although the baby buzzards and foxes need dinner too). Anyway, it’s lovely to see an anti-classist approach to getting healthy, which acknowledges that things are harder for folk who don’t have as much money. Must be the influence of all that good food and exercise on the critical abilities of the folk writing here 🙂

  21. 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 in the old days

    In my Daddy’s day most meals were cooked at home. People rarely ate from home. Meals were sit down. Everyone sat down to eat. People didn’t eat on the run or on the go. This was true up until about the 1970s. I think people don’t really enjoy food like they used to. They munch on food and use it for “comfort” but they aren’t as likely to sit down and eat it slowly and savor it! That is why I look forward to Thanksgiving. I do not blame fast food or coke alone for rise in obesity. Its still a PERSONAL CHOICE. Water is cheaper than coke. And people just like to eat out because its out of boredom and lack of will power.

  22. 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.

  23. 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 deal on fruit is 1.99 per pound . so a Truly poor person is skinny not fat and its not the lack of a lot of money diet that makes you fat its either genetics or poor decision making .

  24. 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 job in the evenings. I believe lots of poor people also have these kinds of low-paying labor jobs.
    I’m starting to feel pretty shitty, but it seems better than being hungry. I have some veggies, fruit, and meat too, but I have to ration it a bit more so I don’t run out.

  25. 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 is cheaper. This week I planned meals with no crappy carbs and for a family of SIX, I only spent $80 to feed everybody for the whole week. I didn’t buy ANY convenience foods. Sure, chicken is like 5 or 6 dollars for 3 breasts, and a big mac is 5 bucks, but frozen veggies are not that expensive, and those 3 breasts can be sliced in half, or diced and thrown in with a bunch of vegetables. So you could theoretically feed 6 people for two days on TEN dollars of healthy food, or spend $30 bucks to feed them one burger. Not much of a contest there. A little bit of planning goes a long way.