Have people always been fat? An historical enquiry.





Diet, Lifestyle, Obesity, Physical activity.


Objective. Some investigators claim that obesity has always been a feature of human society, but others maintain that obesity was absent from traditional hunter-gatherer communities. Resolution of this issue is important to prevention and treatment. Can obesity be avoided by the rigorous daily activity and limited availability of food found in many hunter-gatherer groups, or is the accumulation of body fatan inevitable consequence of the human genome ? Methods. A narrative review has gathered available information on eating habits, habitual daily physical activity and body fat accumulation over various historical eras, ranging from the earliest Paleolithic and Neolithic communities to Victorian society.  Results. The success of Paleolithic and Neolithic communities generally depended upon high levels of daily energy expenditure, and despite the discovery of some obese "Mother Goddess" figurines, studies of small communities that have maintained a Neolithic lifestyle still show very low levels of body fat. With the development of settled societies based upon an agricultural economy, an economic surplus and social stratification allowed the emergence of a growing upper echelon of society that could over-eat and engaged in too little physical activity. However, the widespread prevalence of obesity across developed societies is a late 20th century phenomenon, associated with ever-decreasing needs for energy expenditure in daily life, reduced opportunities for deliberate leisure activity in mega-cities, the promotion of over-eating and unhealthy diets by commercial interests, and possibly a greater public acceptance of obesity.   Conclusions. Obesity is typically an expression of over-eating and inadequate habitual physical activity. Although there are occasional pathological causes, an excess of body fat is a health problem that could be resolved quite readily for most people by a disciplined return to the dietary and physical activity patterns of earlier generations.

Author Biography

Roy J. Shephard, University of Toronto

Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, University of Toronto




How to Cite

Shephard, R. J. (2018). Have people always been fat? An historical enquiry. The Health & Fitness Journal of Canada, 10(3), 3–53. https://doi.org/10.14288/hfjc.v10i3.239