Fat in the Fifties: America's First Obesity Epidemic

Introduction and Description

Fat in the Fifties is the first book to reconstruct the emergence of obesity as a major threat to public health in the 1940s USA, together with the national mobilization to fight this leading cause of heart disease -- the number one killer by far.  Against the backdrop of Cold War culture it follows the twists and turns of epidemiological science, health policy, clinical medicine, and popular health practices to decipher the mystery of how this epidemic ceased to be a crisis and was forgotten in the late 1960s, despite the fact that Americans were getting no thinner.

Praise and Reviews of Fat in the Fifties:

"Fat in the Fifties is a riveting analysis of the rise and fall of early concerns about the health consequences of obesity. Rasmussen's history is indispensable for understanding the social, psychological, political, and environmental origins of today's obesity 'crisis.'"

— Marion Nestle, New York University, author of  Food Politics and Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat


"A well-written and fascinating review of obesity in the 1950s and beyond. This is a unique book that deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in obesity. Highly recommended."

— Scott Kahan, Director, National Center for Weight and Wellness


"This book offers a fascinating journey through the profound changes in the way obesity has been viewed, from when it was first identified as an issue to when it began to explode in prevalence. This engaging chronicle is highly valuable in understanding weight and obesity issues today."

— Kelly D. Brownell, Director, World Food Policy Center


"From a glandular gold rush in the 1920s to pink methamphetamine diet pills in the 1950s, Rasmussen tracks the clinical and cultural fads and fashionable stigmatizations dialectally constructing the first US 'obesity epidemic.' An analytical tour de force and a brilliantly entertaining read!"

— Dorothy Porter, University of California San Francisco


"Fat in the Fifties offers a critical window on how medical and scientific ideas were powerfully shaped by deep cultural assumptions regarding risk and responsibility, gender, stigma, and the constitution of problems of 'public' health. This is an innovative contribution to the history of obesity, disease, and public health."

— Allan M. Brandt, Harvard University, author of The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America


Fat in the 50s
1:  Fat and the Public's Health before the Second World War

The life insurance industry and public health authorities become alarmed at the dramatic rise in heart disease deaths, particularly coronary heart disease.  Mining  massive stores of client data, insurers identify weight and blood pressure as key risks

2:  Obesity becomes a Mental Disorder

Around 1940 the medical profession concludes that obesity stems not from abnormal  hormones and metabolism but from excess eating.  The underlying psychiatric diagnosis is typically depression and/or oral fixation (stunted psychosexual development) - just like drug addiction. Fat people are treated as deviants by society, mental patients by family doctors and psychiatrists, and exploited by legions of pill-pushing quacks

5: The New Epidemiology and its Impact

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Framingham and other big postwar prospective studies launched begin to bear fruit.  While excess weight remains a strong predictor of coronary  disease, these studies raise the status of competing risk factor cholesterol and, because it seldom occurs without high blood pressure, generate confusion about obesity's independent significance

6:  The Disappearance of Obesity as a Public Health Problem

Aided by feminism and changing  attitudes about conformity in the late 1960s, researchers funded by the sugar industry undermine the traditional definition of obesity as a function of weight, proposing instead one based on body fat percentage. The new measure of obesity is not validated as a better heart disease predictor, but the redefinition makes all existing data linking obesity to poor health obsolete. The obesity epidemic is forgotten - but not gone, as the nation grows no thinner

3: The Postwar Heart Alarm

The Federal government takes arms against heart disease at the end of the 1940s, founding the National Heart Institute, and works with the life insurance industry in launching a campaign to slim the 25% of Americans classed as overweight and obese.  Meanwhile a struggle emerges between President Truman, backed by public health authorities, and the medical profession over national health insurance.

4: Fighting Heart Disease One Calorie at a Time in Cold War Suburbia

Group therapy for weight loss, one of the many public health measures launched around 1948 to fight heart disease and its drivers, catches on.  Throughout the nation, women form clubs to discuss their eating habits, their feelings about their bodies, and support each other's weight loss.  Ironically, however much these women may have gained emotionally, obesity was linked to  heart disease mainly in men

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