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Did the Obesity Epidemic Start in 1930?



Thorkild Sørensen

Yesterday, at the ongoing XI International Congress on Obesity, the 2010 ICO Award for Population Science and Public Health was awarded to Thorkild Sørensen from the University of Copenhagen. His studies from the early 70’s found early signs of the impending obesity epidemic in young Danish military recruits as far back as the 1960s.

His studies further suggest that this increase in obesity was related to “birth cohort” effects and can likely be traced to perinatal environmental factors rather than to influences acting on school age kids or adults. Indeed, based on his findings, Sørensen strongly recommends that we take a careful look at the historical dimension if we hope to identify the root causes of the current obesity epidemic.

As it so happens, I also had the pleasure of attending the launch of the new Wadd Society for the History of Obesity, with presentations from Professors George Bray, Stephan Rossner, and David Haslam at this meeting. The aim of the society is to promote interest in the history of obesity ranging from medical and pharmacological aspects to those of fashion, culture, art, and literature.

As all of this perhaps serves to remind those of us working in the field of obesity, that we must be very cautious before jumping to conclusions regarding whether or not recent environmental changes such as sedentary lifestyles, fast food, sugary soft drinks, television, or any of the many other factors that are being discussed are truly the root causes of the epidemic. While none of these development would be considered “healthy”, conclusive evidence as to their actual role in the epidemic of obesity is far from conclusive.

AMS
Stockholm, Sweden

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3 Comments

  1. Hi Arya,

    Great updates from ISO – thanks!

    Was wondering how Sørensen’s data and theories work with the more recent rises in obesity in the developing world and also how a “birth cohort” effect is something that can transcend cultures, oceans, geography, countries and time as genes don’t generally work that way and maternal imprinting, while certainly a posible contributor, I imagine would differ the world over by those same variables?

    Best,
    Yoni

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  2. If I remember correctly, the obesity epidemic started in 1871, when a female Holstein cow owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary in Chicago, IL kicked over a lantern in the barn behind the family’s house.

    Wait.
    I might be mistaken on this.
    Let me get back to you.

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  3. “… we must be very cautious before jumping to conclusions regarding whether or not recent environmental changes such as sedentary lifestyles, fast food, sugary soft drinks, television, or any of the many other factors that are being discussed are truly the root causes of the epidemic.”

    Are you questioning all of the above as a root cause of “Obesity Epidemic”?

    I believe regardless of whatever the root cause of obesity may be and why it is happening in some and not others the role that sedentary life style and fast food type of diet is playing in progression of this epidemic is undeniable based on many many studies in this field…..

    A controversial example of this was the movie “Super Size Me” that was released in 2004 by American independent filmmaker, Martin Spurlock in an exploration of the prevalence of obesity in the USA. He documented 30 days of his life in an experiment of eating only McDonald’s food with completely no exercise. He began the project as healthy and lean but ended up overweight. It was later followed by several other documentaries and a few changes in the McDonald’s menu. As you mentioned the history of obesity should be well studied so precautions can be practiced and thus prevent obesity from spreading.

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