When did the ‘obesity problem’ really begin and what did obesity mean to people in the past? This is what Anne Hansen asked herself, when she embarked on a Ph.D. with the Saxo Institute at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo. Shutterstock)

19th century undertaker introduced the world to dieting

Historical studies of obesity contradict the myth that being fat was a sign of health in days gone by. The first evidence of modern dieting did not emerge until the 1860s, say researchers.

Obesity has become a part of our everyday vocabulary. But when did the ‘obesity problem’ really begin and what did obesity mean to people in the past?

These are the questions that Anne Hansen asked herself, when she embarked on a Ph.D. with the Saxo Institute at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

“The way in which obesity has become a problem today, often draws on a historical narrative of the emergence of ‘a modern’ problem. In this narrative we have come to understand, first, how dangerous obesity is, and second, that we are all at huge risk of becoming obese,” says Hansen.

Niels Brimnes, a lecture in obesity at the Institute for Culture and Society at Aarhus University, Denmark, agrees.

“From a historical perspective, health and the perception of illness have been naturalised. We believe that health and disease have something to do with biology, and that being healthy is a constant throughout history--but we can show that this isn’t case,” says Brimnes.

History it seems, has shaped the way we understand obesity today, but not in the way that you may think.

Read more: No place like home for dieting success

Little evidence of the prestige of obesity in days gone by

A common assumption is that obesity was once seen as a sign of self-indulgence and social status.

“It’s a common story that almost everybody knows. If I meet people at parties and tell them what I [research], they tell me that obesity is a modern problem and that it was a sign of health and prestige in the old days,” says Hansen.

But she has found few signs that this was actually the case in the medical profession, though the criteria for what is considered to be a large body has varied over time.

In the 1700s, it was not necessarily your weight alone that condemned you as fat. And recordings of how much people actually weighed are rare in historical documents, says Hansen.

“They focused more on mobility,” she says. “Weight related to height as a measure of body fat came about during the 1800s.” After which it became more widely used.

Obesity less recognised in the 19th century

But arguably the rise in obesity that we recognise today did not start in the 20th or even the 19th century.

“Actually, it’s in some ways easier to argue that obesity was a more [recognised as a] disease in the 1700s than in the 1800s,” says Hansen.

Obesity seems to fit the criteria for disease used in the 1700s better than that used in the following century.

In the 1800s, they started to base their clinical descriptions of illness on internal lesions in organs and pathological changes in tissues, which they did not observe in fat tissue, regardless of how much of it there was, she says.

Also read: Couch potato habits don’t explain obesity epidemic

Dieting as we know it began in the 1860s

But it was not until the 1860s that what we may consider the modern phenomenon of dieting really began. And that was thanks to the London undertaker, William Banting.

An obese man himself, Banting ran around Victorian London looking for a doctor who would help him to lose weight. But none of them would take him seriously. They simply told him, that he was obese due to his age.

Finally, he saw an ear-doctor who recognized how bad the problem was by the fact that BAnting was also deaf.

“The ear specialist believed that the fat pushed the small canals in the ears together, and put him on a diet that was very different from the normal perception of what they called 'low regiment' at the time--a nutrient poor diet,” says Hansen.

“Until this point, Banting had tried to eat potatoes, bread, butter, beer, milk, and sugar to control his weight. But ear specialist William Harvey put him on a [protein rich diet]. Something that seemed quite counterintuitive to Banting,” she says.

But Banting lost the weight and got his hearing back and he would later publish the results in his 'Letter on Corpulence' in 1864.

Banting could not explain the science behind his successful high protein diet, but a German scientist who saw the letter thought he could, and helped Banting to explain and disseminate the results.

It quickly became a fad, to the extent that the English adopted the term ‘to bant’ meaning to go on a diet, while ‘banter’, meaning the same thing, is still used in Sweden today.

Cultural research on medical science informs today’s debate

Hansen hopes that her studies can help inform today’s debate about obesity, and stresses that it clearly is not simply a modern problem with no historical examples.

“It’s not that there aren’t more obese people in the world today than there were in the 1700s, but the story serves as a critique of the history of modern civilization and how we are apparently about to collapse under our own weight--that we are eating ourselves to death,” says Hansen.

Brimnes agrees.

“One of the tasks of a historian is to tell us when there is something that we think is obviously modern, that is actually historically changeable,” says Brimnes.

Hansen has just begun a new project to map how photography and images of for example, overweight children have helped to characterise our understanding of obesity and health throughout the 20th century.


Read the Danish version of this story on Videnskab.dk

Translated by: Catherine Jex

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