April 8, 2009

More on fat

* Just got my copy of Fat Head and watched it twice. (Here's a recent 2blowhards interview with the creator, Tom Naughton.) It's pretty funny and is a nice condensed form of Good Calories, Bad Calories. Either one would be good to recommend or lend to others, but Fat Head will probably go down more easily. One point that is emphasized a lot more than in Taubes' book (although it does show up there too) is the depressive effect of high-carb diets, which I discussed here. New fact learned: the creator and follower of one popular high-carb diet, Nathan Pritikin, died by suicide.

I never saw Super Size Me because it seemed pretty obvious that eating a bunch of garbage all day would harm your body. After watching Fat Head, I now have another reason not to watch it: its creator, Morgan Spurlock, later chose to follow his girlfriend's vegan detox diet. Following your girlfriend's detox diet -- and which is vegan. That's all kinds of gay. I'm sure she made an exception, though, when he snipped off and deep fried his own balls for her to tear into.

* ScienceDaily reports on yet another study that shows the benefits of a low-carb, high-fat diet for epileptics. See the related articles on that page as well.

* In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark mentions several times that during the late Middle Ages, workers' wages were supplemented with high-fat foods like meat. Contrast that with the typical lower-class diet of mostly carbs, at least in an agricultural society. For the history buffs, is there some well known change in lower-class culture during this time? They must have been more sharp-minded, vigorous, lusty, and better-looking than during other times.

* Continuing with history, here's a neat blog post on obesity in ancient Egypt by the creator of the Protein Power diet, Michael Eades (who is extensively interviewed in Fat Head). He points out that depictions of the rulers, whether paintings or sculptures, were idealized and thin -- unlike the obese shapes that they actually had.

I wonder how far this generalizes. One stupid pop-sociology theory you've probably heard is that we've only recently viewed obesity as a bad thing, and that this has to do with our post-agricultural society. Before, the theory says, the lower classes worked hard and ate little, and thus were thin, while the upper classes were idle and ate a lot, and so were fat. Once the lower classes started to work less physically demanding jobs, and as fattening food became cheaper, it was then the poor who were fat. And so to distance themselves, the elites strove to be thin and cultivated the cult of thinness that is still with us.

(This is the same silly reason that is supposed to account for the changing popularity of pale vs. tan skin.)

One problem with the theory, though -- it's bullshit. Sheer number of calories and exercise do not determine weight gain or loss -- it's how much carbohydrate you have in your diet, as the insulin response is what stores energy in fat cells. Upper class people may or may not have been obese, but it would not have been due to eating a lot and exercising little -- as with the ancient Egyptians, it was due to eating a high-carb diet, which we can see by how rotten their teeth were. And the lower classes would have been even more obese, since dead animals -- the primary source of protein and fat -- have always been luxury items. Just look at Spanish peasants who subsisted entirely on corn, or Irish peasants who ate only potatoes.

Therefore, there has been almost no time or place where the rich were overweight or obese, while the commoners were lean, perhaps aside from the most destitute who were wasting away from starvation. Of course, the rich don't seek to distinguish themselves from vagrants, but from commoners. Indeed, if you look at depictions of European royalty, you see almost no fat people. Just search Wikipedia for "List of ___ monarchs," and for most countries, you'll get a list of them in order with portraits. I looked over all of the European ones from the Middle Ages to the present, as well as Roman Emperors, and there are at most 2 overweight monarchs per country. It's a "see it for yourself" thing, though -- just play around for 10 minutes.

Again, these portraits may not reflect reality -- the ancient Egyptian depictions certainly did not. However, for the 19th C and later, there are photographs, which can't be faked (no Photoshop), and these all show thin people, aside from Queen Victoria. This is long before the supposed transition point around the early 20th C. And remember, the real question here is not "were the elites fatter than they were depicted?" but "were the elites more overweight and obese compared to the commoners?" This is what the theory depends on.

Moreover, even if the portraits of thin or muscular kings are embellishments, that still contradicts the theory -- it shows that the ideal has never been that overweightness is good, but that being thin or athletic has at all times and places been the preferred way to lie about what the ruler looked like. In conclusion, there is simply no observation to explain -- the idea that overweightness used to be idealized, or associated with the elites, is complete horseshit.

And it's not just the royalty to whom this applies. Most of the people portrayed in Western high art are rich patrons, and none of them look fat either. Look at the man in van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding (1434), Renaissance portraits of the Medici family, Franz Hals' portraits of the elite during the Dutch Golden Age (17th C.), Fragonard's view of the French Ancien Regime (18th C.), depictions of fashionable wealthy people in the 1820s, and so on and so on. You might be able to find a few fatties, but most are either thin or athletic.

Lastly, consider religious art. It's well known that artists paint religious figures to look more like the local norm than the person truly was. They idealize the figure's appearance. So, if overweightness used to be considered elite or healthy, why are no religious figures drawn as fatsos? As with royalty and the rich, they're all thin or muscular.

Fat people believe in this myth because it gives them hope for a return to a Golden Past, where they'll be lionized and lusted after. And thin people believe it to ameliorate the envy of fat people: "Don't worry, it's not human nature that makes people revile the obese. It's just a social construction -- so please don't eat me!" Whatever their reasons, they're all wrong. Rolls of lard have never been considered hallmarks of the pious, patrician, or pulchritudinous. There's a simple reason for that, of course: we evolved to prefer signs of health and vigor, not starvation and lethargy. (When you follow a high-carb diet, you may have lots of energy stored in fat cells, but that energy is not available to all other cells for fuel, so you're actually starving.)

Yet another ugly theory slain by beautiful facts.


  1. And whoever named that statue the "Venus" of Willendorf has some 'splainin to do.

  2. You reminded me of this post about monarchs and diet. See theory #2.

  3. If, as they say, she was relying mostly on meat, then Anne Boleyn could not have gotten scurvy. You can only get scurvy when you eat a lot of carbs: the avalanche of glucose competes with vitamin C for access to a transporter molecule that gets either of them where they need to go.

    Eskimos eating their seal and whale diet never get scurvy. But British sailors eating porridge, biscuits, and sugar, do get scurvy.

    I'd suspect it was do to an infection -- not necessarily an STD, of course.

    Something else I've wondered about Anne Boleyn is what accounts for her hotness. She's just about the only English woman aside from Jean Shrimpton who is good-looking.

    She lived during a relatively nice period, roughly 1450 to 1550, after the Black Death and famines had cleared out a lot of Europe's population. Fewer people means each enjoys a higher standard of living, including health.

  4. Other people have tried McDonald's diets in the manner of Super Size Me and have not had significantly adverse health consequences. You can read about them at SSM's Wikipedia entry.


  5. Why does the creator defend fast food, McDonalds in particular? It's loaded with carbs and processed vegetable oil, which he points out are the cause of heart disease and obesity.

  6. When Nathan Pritikin committed suicide he had a terminal case of leukemia - not that that makes things any better for a low-fat diet, but still.

  7. Girlfriend's vegan detox diet? Damn.

    A more subtle benefit of a protein-heavy diet is that when people see you eat they tend to think you're an athlete. I realized not long ago that some 98% of the times I'm asked if I compete in any sports or lift weights or whatever, it's over a meal. The other 2% is while being measured for clothes.

  8. if overweightness used to be considered elite or healthy, why are no religious figures drawn as fatsos?


  9. Agnostic--What about Elizabeth Taylor--who in her teens, 20s, and 30s was arguably one of the most beautiful women in the entertainment industry? Period. British.

    And Kate Beckinsale, Cheryl Cole, Sienna Miller.

    These are all unbelievably beautiful, feminine, British women.

    Maybe there are only a handful but to say only Jean Shrimpton? No way...maybe not the bevvy Israel or Argentina has...but more than 2 in HISTORY.


  10. http://kassyk.wordpress.com/2008/11/20/new-monthly-feature-girl-crush/

    I added about 10 new photos...especially the one where she has not one stitch of makeup on and unlike most celebs caught makeup less still looks GORGEOUS.

    Also--check out Interview--its short and even with greasy hair and all in black, Sienna Miller is strikingly gorgeous.

    Or Alfie were I think a million men fell in love with her looks.

    She actually reminds me a lot physically of Jean Shrimpton and Audrey and those kind of petite, wide eyed, 60s ingenues in her look...I prefer her nose though.

  11. Agnostic - I'm interested in how you explain several facts that seem to strongly dispute your theory.

    1) Japanese and other Asians (Thais', etc) are extremely thin with very little body fat yet their diet is extremely heavy on carbs. Rice is the staple and most Thai food as well as Sushi, Teriyaki, etc are very heavy on sugar and sweeteners.

    2) People in the Middle Ages may have eaten lots of meat but they also drank tons of mead/ale which is heavy in carbs. Bread was also heavily used.

  12. Oh this is for you guys (esp you Agnostic)--Cheryl Cole. If you are wondering why she doesn't look or sound "British" it is because she is from Newcastle--diff accent and look.

    a super short video of her close up:


    a longer video of her on the X-Factor the first week--snippets. I dare you to watch this whole thing and not fall in love with her. I am in love with her and I am completely straight.



  13. Oh, sorry to come back to this thread...but I made a mistake. Liz Taylor was born in England but came from American parents and raised in America.

    Sorry about that!

  14. Patrick Bateman4/15/09, 6:21 PM

    I'm sure she made an exception, though, when he snipped off and deep fried his own balls for her to tear into.Priceless


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