It’s Food, Not Inactivity, That Makes Kids Fat

Anthropologists Show That What Kids Eat Matters More than What They Do



Over 13 million American children and teens are now classified as obese, and many others are overweight. During the past year, we have seen how obesity puts a body at risk for severe disease and death; starting on that path young makes for an extremely unhealthy outlook.


Sociologists, nutritionists, pediatricians, and child educators have done many studies trying to figure out why so many kids end up fat when childhood has normally been a time of high-energy play and running around. Possible culprits are too much time inactive in front of screens, not going outdoors to play, unhealthy family eating patterns, portion sizes, and the quality of American food. But a sedentary lifestyle and overeating are mostly blamed for childhood weight gain.


A recent study by anthropologist Sam Urlacher of Baylor University assessing the effects of a modern diet on Indigenous Shuar peoples of the Amazonian Rainforest in Ecuador, claims we have it somewhat wrong. It’s not the inactivity or overeating of modern life per se, but what children are eating while they overindulge.


Urlacher did the kind of research that can only be done by an astute anthropologist working in a place with access to a population that has both traditional and assimilated sub-groups. That way, when comparing the two groups, a researcher need not worry that whatever differences pop up are genetic because all the participants come from the same gene pool. Their sample compared 43 Shuar children who still lived an Amazonian rainforest life which includes hunting, gathering, and gardening to 34 Shuar children who had migrated to the city with their families and adopted an urban lifestyle. The urban children were much fatter, and yet data showed that those kids were not significantly less active than the rainforest kids; both groups burned about the same number of calories per day. The big difference was what and how much they were eating. The urban kids were eating more animal fat, starchy foods, and lots of sugar in candy. In other words, the weight gain by the city kids was a cultural effect, and detrimental to their health.


Archaeologists, examining the bones of our ancestors, have long pointed to what are called “diseases of civilization” that showed up in ancient people after the Agricultural Revolution (about 10,000 years ago). Humans had opted to settle down and grow their food and by and large quit hunting and gathering. Instead, they cultivated a primary plant — starchy grains or tubers — to obtain all the calories a community might need. As a consequence, that mono-culture strategy resulted in deathly malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies as well as increases in dental cavities that ended up as fatal abscesses. Today we can count heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and death by smoking as other diseases of civilization, sometimes called “suicide by lifestyle.”


Surely, our latest cultural turn toward manufactured foods full of bad fats, sugars, and who knows what else, is another cultural mistake we can add to the list. As the just-published book by Michael Moss, Hooked: Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions explains, processed foods are not just unhealthy, they are also addictive. Food manufacturers are thrilled about that, even if we are killing ourselves by eating this way and setting up our children for a lifetime of ill health.

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