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Thoughts on Fat

I’m always thrilled when the media catches up to enlightened thinking. Sadly, it’s a rare occurrence, which makes it worth mentioning because, to greater or lesser degree, what we read, hear and see often shapes our thinking. A NYTimes article by Roni Caryn Rabin, “Fat Wasn’t Always a Bad Thing,” jumped off the page at me. It’s one of the few I’ve read for public consumption that views fat from a logical, realistic perspective.

The article explains the purpose of fat in evolutionary terms: folks who had the most meat on them survived times of food scarcity and famine (which was most of human history), while those who were lean died. Fat was a good thing! In fact, fat was just about the best thing you could be if you wanted to live long and prosper. The heavy people who survived, of course, passed on their genes to subsequent generations who spawned more heavy people, who also survived to keep propagating the species.

But, explains Rabin, something went wrong along the way to turn the tables so that we now find health dangers in being fat. The author asks an excellent question: “When did excess fat stop being a protective mechanism that assured survival and instead became a liability?” When indeed? One hypothesis, she says, is that “in some people, fat not only stores energy but also revs up the body’s immune system. This subgroup may have enjoyed a survival advantage during a plague of tuberculosis in the 1800s in Europe, a plague that robbed most people of body fat and caused them to waste away.”

However, now that medicine has advanced and can cure most diseases and plagues, and because food is readily available, the ability to store fat has become an anachronism. We no longer need to store fat effectively because, at least in most Western cultures, the majority of people have enough to eat on a regular basis. There are challengers to this theory, but the concept of outgrowing our need to store fat is thought provoking. How could what’s called a “thrifty” fat storage gene be so right for so long and cause so many problems nowadays? How does fat trigger inflammation and metabolic disease? What evolutionary purpose, if any, could this mechanism serve?

I’m obviously not a science writer and am not blogging about fat and evolution from the standpoint of scientific solutions. My point is to help us all—those who are overweight and those who aren’t—view fat in a healthier way. For millennia, fat had a purpose, a life-giving, species-ensuring purpose. It was all about health not appearance. So, let’s please all try to remember that when we look out at the world and into the mirror.