The Evolutionary History of Fat: Biologists Explain Why It’s Necessary for Our Survival & Why We’re Biased Against It

The Fat Acceptance movement may seem like a 21st century phenomenon, rising to public consciousness with the success of high-profile writers, actors, filmmakers, and activists in recent years. But the movement can date its origins to 1967, when WBAI radio personality Steve Post held a “fat-in” in Central Park, bringing 500 people together to protest, celebrate, and burn diet books and photos of Twiggy. “That same year,” notes the Center for Discovery, “a man named Llewelyn ‘Lew’ Louderback wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post titled, ‘More People Should be FAT.’” These early sallies led to the founding of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) two years later and more radical groups in the 70s like the Fat Underground.

There would be no need for fat activism, of course, if there were no biases against fat people. This raises the question: where did those biases come from? They are not innate, says Harvard University evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman in the Slate video above, but are a product of a history that tracks, coincidentally, with the rise of mass marketing and mass consumerism. We have been sold the idea that thin bodies are better, healthier, more attractive, and more desirable, and that fat is something to be warred against. “However, as an evolutionary biologist, “says Lieberman, I’ve come to appreciate that without fat, we’d be dead. Humans wouldn’t really be the way we are. Fat is really life.”


A quick perusal of art history shows us that larger bodies have been valued around the world in much of human history. We now associate fat with poor health, but it has also signaled the opposite — a storehouse of caloric wealth and healthy fertility. “Our bodies have all sorts of tricks to make sure we never run out of energy,” says Lieberman, “and the main way that we store energy is fat.” Leiberman and other biologists in the video survey the role of fat in human survival and thriving. “Fat is an organ,” and scientists are learning how it communicates with other systems in the body to regulate energy consumption and feed our comparatively enormous brains.

Among animals, “humans are especially adapted to be fat.” Even the thinnest among us are corpulent compared to most primates. Still, the average human did not have any opportunity to become obese until relatively recent historical developments — in the grand evolutionary scheme of things — like agriculture, heavy industry, and the science to preserve and store food. When Europeans discovered sugar, then mass produced it on plantations and exported it around the world, sugar consumption magnified exponentially. The average American now eats 100 pounds of sugar per year. The average hunter-gatherer might have struggled the eat “a pound or two a year” from natural sources.

The over-abundance of calories has led to a type-II diabetes epidemic worldwide that is closely related to sugar consumption. It isn’t necessarily related to having a larger body, although fat deposits in the heart and elsewhere can worsen insulin resistance (and heart disease); the problem is almost certainly linked to excess sugar, the constant availability of high-calorie foods, and low incentives to exercise. Our hunger for sweets and love of comfort are not character flaws, however. They are evolutionary drives that allow us to acquire and conserve energy, operating in a food economy that often punishes us for those very drives. Dieting not only doesn’t work, as neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt explains in her TED Talk above, but it often backfires, making us even hungrier because our brains perceive us as deprived.

As scientists like Lieberman gain a better understanding of the role of fat in human biology, those in the medical community are realizing that doctors and nurses are hardly free from the societal biases against fat. Studies show those biases can translate to poorer medical care and bad advice about dieting, a vicious cycle in which health conditions unrelated to weight go untreated, and are then blamed on weight. Evolutionary biology explains the role of fat in human development, and human history explains its increase, but the question of where the hatred of fat comes from is a trickier one for these scientists to answer. They barely mention the role of advertising and entertainment.

In 1979, activists in the “Fat Liberation Manifesto” identified the problem as fat people’s “mistreatment by commercial and sexist interests” that have “exploited our bodies as objects of ridicule, thereby creating an immensely profitable market selling the false promise of avoidance of, or relief from, that ridicule.” Despite decades of resistance, the diet industry thrives. A Google search of the phrase “body fat” yields page upon page of unscientific advice about ideal body fat percentages, as though reminding the majority of Americans (7 in 10 are classified as overweight or obese) that they should feel there’s something wrong with them.

Blame, shame, and ridicule won’t solve medical problems, say the biologists in the video above, and it certainly doesn’t help people lose weight, if that’s what they need to do. If we better understood the role of fat in keeping us healthy, happy, and alive, maybe we could overcome our hatred of it and accept others, and ourselves, in whatever bodies we’re in.

Related Content: 

How the Food We Eat Affects Our Brain: Learn About the “MIND Diet”

Exercise May Prove an Effective Natural Treatment for Depression & Anxiety, New Study Shows

Why Sitting Is The New Smoking: An Animated Explanation

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Vintage Public Health Posters That Helped People Take Smart Precautions During Past Crises


We subscribe to the theory that art saves lives even in the best of times.

In the midst of a major public health crisis, art takes a front line position, communicating best practices to citizens with eye catching, easy to understand graphics and a few well chosen words.

In March of 2020, less than 2 weeks after COVID-19 brought New York to its knees, Angelina Lippert, the Chief Curator of Poster House, one of the city’s newer museums shared a blog post, considering the ways in which the CDC’s basic hygiene recommendations for helping stop the spread had been touted to previous generations.


As she noted in a lecture on the history of the poster as Public Service Announcement the following month, “mass public health action… is how we stopped tuberculosis, polio, and other major diseases that we don’t even think of today:”

And a major part of eradicating them was educating the public. That’s really what PSAs are—a means of informing and teaching the public en masse. It goes back to that idea … of not having to seek out information, but just being presented with it. Keeping the barrier for entry low means more people will see and absorb the information.

The Office of War Information and the District of Columbia Society for the Prevention of Blindness used an approachable looking raccoon to convince the public to wash hands in WWII.

Artist Seymour Nydorf swapped the raccoon for a blonde waitress with glamorous red nails in a series of six posters for the U.S. Public Health Service of the Federal Security Agency

Coughing and sneezing took posters into somewhat grosser terrain.

The New Zealand Department of Health’s 50s era poster shamed careless sneezers into using a hankie, and might well have given those in their vicinity a persuasive reason to bypass the buffet table.

Great Britain’s Central Council for Health Education and Ministry of Health collaborated with

Her Majesty’s Stationery Office to teach the public some basic infection math in WWII.

Children’s wellbeing can be a very persuasive tool. The WPA Federal Art Project was not playing in 1941 when it paired an image of a cherubic tot with stern warnings to parents and other family members to curb their affectionate impulses, as well as the transmission of tuberculosis.

The arresting image packs more of a wallop than this earnest and far wordier, early 20s poster by the National Child Welfare Association and the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis.

Read Poster House Chief Curator Angelina Lippert’s Brief History of PSA Posters here.

Download the free anti-xenophobia PSAs Poster House commissioned from designer Rachel Gingrich early in the pandemic here.

Related Content: 

Download Beautiful Free Posters Celebrating the Achievements of Living Female STEM Leaders

The First Museum Dedicated Exclusively to Poster Art Opens Its Doors in the U.S.: Enter the Poster House

Salvador Dalí Creates a Chilling Anti-Venereal Disease Poster During World War II

Download 2,000 Magnificent Turn-of-the-Century Art Posters, Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How the COVID-19 Vaccines Could Be Created So Quickly: Two Animated Videos Explain the How mRNA Vaccines Were Developed, and How They Work

The world now has COVID-19 vaccines, of which more and more people are receiving their doses every day. A year and a half ago the world did not have COVID-19 vaccines, though it was fast becoming clear how soon it would need them. The subsequent development of the ones now being deployed around the world took not just less than a year and a half but less than a year, an impressive speed even to many of us who never dug deep into medical science. The achievement owes in part to the use of mRNA, a term most of us may recall only dimly from biology classes; through the pandemic, messenger ribonucleic acid, to use its full name, has proven if not the savior of humanity, then at least the very molecule we needed.

One shouldn’t get “the idea that these vaccines came out of nowhere.” On Twitter, Dan Rather — these days a more outspoken  figure than ever — calls the prevalence such a notion “a failure of science communication with tragic results,” describing the vaccines as “the result of DECADES of basic research in MULTIPLE fields building on the BREADTH and DEPTH of human knowledge.”


You can get a clearer sense of what that research has involved through videos like the animated TED-Ed explainer above. “In the twentieth century, most vaccines took well over a decade to research, test, and produce,” says its narrator. “But the vaccines for COVID-19 cleared the threshold for use in less than eleven months.” The “secret”? mRNA.

A “naturally occurring molecule that encodes the instructions for occurring proteins,” mRNA can be used in vaccines to “safely introduce our body to a virus.” Researchers first “encode trillions of mRNA molecules with instructions for a specific viral protein.” Then they inject those molecules into a specially designed “nanoparticle” also containing lipids, sugars, and salts. When it reaches our cells, this nanoparticle triggers our immune response: the body produces “antibodies to fight that viral protein, that will then stick around to defend against future COVID-19 infections.” And all of this happens without the vaccine altering out DNA,

While mRNA vaccines will “have a big impact on how we fight COVID-19,” says the narrator of the Vox video above, “their real impact is just beginning.” Their development marked “a turning point for the pandemic,” but given their potential applications in the battles against a host of other, even deadlier diseases (e.g., HIV), “the pandemic might also be a turning point for vaccines.”

Related Content:

How Fast Can a Vaccine Be Made?: An Animated Introduction

How Do Vaccines (Including the COVID-19 Vaccines) Work?: Watch Animated Introductions

How Vaccines Improved Our World In One Graphic

19th Century Maps Visualize Measles in America Before the Miracle of Vaccines

Roald Dahl, Who Lost His Daughter to Measles, Writes a Heartbreaking Letter about Vaccinations: “It Is Almost a Crime to Allow Your Child to Go Unimmunised”

Yo-Yo Ma Plays an Impromptu Performance in Vaccine Clinic After Receiving 2nd Dose

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Dying in the Name of Vaccine Freedom

Here’s the context to a sobering newly-released video from The New York Times:

In the video above, Alexander Stockton, a producer on the Opinion Video team, explores two of the main reasons the number of Covid cases is soaring once again in the United States: vaccine hesitancy and refusal.

“It’s hard to watch the pandemic drag on as Americans refuse the vaccine in the name of freedom,” he says.

Seeking understanding, Mr. Stockton travels to Mountain Home, Ark., in the Ozarks, a region with galloping contagion and — not unrelated — abysmal vaccination rates.

He finds that a range of feelings and beliefs underpins the low rates — including fear, skepticism and a libertarian strain of defiance.

This doubt even extends to the staff at a regional hospital, where about half of the medical personnel are not vaccinated — even while the intensive care unit is crowded with unvaccinated Covid patients fighting for their lives.

Mountain Home — like the United States as a whole — is caught in a tug of war between private liberty and public health. But Mr. Stockton suggests that unless government upholds its duty to protect Americans, keeping the common good in mind, this may be a battle with no end.

Sobering indeed…

Related Content 

How the COVID-19 Vaccines Could Be Created So Quickly: Two Animated Videos Explain the How mRNA Vaccines Were Developed, and How They Work

MIT Presents a Free Course on the COVID-19 Pandemic, Featuring Anthony Fauci & Other Experts

Mattel’s Barbie Turns Women of Medicine, Including COVID Vaccine Developer, Into Dolls

A Biostatistician Uses Crochet to Visualize the Frightening Infection Rates of the Coronavirus

Watch The Weight of the Nation Free Online: An Emmy-Nominated HBO Documentary Films Series on Obesity

The Emmy-nominated HBO Documentary Films series on obesity, The Weight of the Nation, premiered in May 2012. And it’s now free to watch online.

Made in collaboration with the NIH, the four-part series — Consequences, Choices, Children in Crisis, and Challenges —explored America’s obesity epidemic–its causes, symptoms, treatments, and solutions. You can watch all four parts above and below. The documentary will be added to our list of Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Discover Ikaria, the Greek Island With the Oldest Life Expectancy in the World

Boilerplate human interest stories about the habits of particularly spry centenarians just don’t cut it anymore. Living a long, healthy, and happy life, we know, involves more than making the right individual choices. It means living in societies that make good choices readily available and support the individuals making them. Nutrition research has borne this out — just scan the latest popular food book titles for the word “Mediterranean,” for example, or input the same search term in an academic database, and you’ll pull up hundreds of results. Even fad diets have shifted from promoting individual celebrities to celebrating whole regions.

Scientists have identified a handful of places around the world, in fact, where diet and other ordinary lifestyle and social factors have led to the outcomes governments spend billions trying, and failing, to achieve. One of these regions is — yes — squarely in the Mediterranean, the Greek island of Ikaria, “named one of the healthiest places on earth,” writes Greek City Times, “a spot of exceptional longevity. Here, there are more healthy people over 90 than any other place on the planet.” Ikaria is just one of five so-called “Blue Zones” — which also include Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, Nicoya, Costa Rica, and Loma Linda, California — where inhabitants regularly live healthy lives into their 90s and beyond.


In the Vice video above, you can meet some of the residents of Ikaria, where 1 in 3 people live past 90, and learn about some of the factors that contribute to long life in blue zones, and in Ikaria in particular. Great weather doesn’t hurt. Most important, however, is local, fresh food, and lots of it. “The most important thing is the food,” says an Ikarian cook as she prepares a batch of fresh-caught fish. “Because you live with it. You eat the right way, everything works the right way.” This is a much better way of saying “you are what you eat.” As Max Fisher points out in a bulleted list of the Greek Island’s “secrets to long life,” things “working the right way” plays a huge role in longevity.

Not only do older people in Ikaria walk everywhere and continue working into their elderly years – happily but not under duress – they also report very healthy sex lives, part of a network of habits that socially reinforce each other, Fisher writes. Hear Ikarian residents above contrast their lives on the island with their lives in fast-paced modern cities where they traded health and wellbeing for more money. Read Fisher’s full list (excerpted below) at The Washington Post.

1) Plenty of rest.

2) An herbal diet.

3) Very little sugar, white flour, or meat.

4) Mediterranean diet.

5) No processed food.

6) Regular napping.

7) Healthy sex lives after 65.

8) Stay busy and involved.

9) Yes, exercise.

10) Little stress of any kind.

11) “Mutually reinforcing” habits.

Related Content: 

10 Longevity Tips from Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara, Japan’s 105-Year-Old Longevity Expert

How to Live to Be 100 and Beyond: 9 Diet & Lifestyle Tips

Book Readers Live Longer Lives, According to New Study from Yale University

Life Lessons From 100-Year-Olds: Timeless Advice in a Short Film

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

De-Mystifying Mindfulness: A Free Online Course by Leiden University

From Chris Goto-Jones–now Dean of Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Victoria–comes a free course which was named ‘one of the best online courses of all time’ in 2020. The course description for De-Mystifying Mindfulness reads:

Interest in meditation, mindfulness, and contemplation has grown exponentially in recent years. Rather than being seen as mystical practices from ancient Buddhism or esoteric philosophy, they are increasingly seen as technologies rooted in evidence from psychology and neuroscience. Mindfulness has become the basis for numerous therapeutic interventions, both as a treatment in healthcare and as a means of enhancing well-being and happiness. For millions around the world, mindfulness has become a life-style choice, enhancing and enriching everyday experience. Mindfulness is big business.


But, what actually is mindfulness? Is it really good for you? Can anyone learn it? How can you recognize charlatans? Would you want to live in a mindful society, and would it smell like sandalwood? What does it feel like to be mindful? Are you mindful already, and how would you know?

Evolving from the popular Honours Academy course at Leiden University [in the Netherlands], this innovative course combines conventional scholarly inquiry from multiple disciplines (ranging from psychology, through philosophy, to politics) with experiential learning (including specially designed ‘meditation labs,’ in which you’ll get chance to practice and analyze mindfulness on yourself). In the end, the course aims to provide a responsible, comprehensive, and inclusive education about (and in) mindfulness as a contemporary phenomenon.

You can take De-Mystifying Mindfulness for free by selecting the audit option upon enrolling. If you want to take the course for a certificate, you will need to pay a fee.

De-Mystifying Mindfulness will be added to our list, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Related Content:

Free Guided Meditations From UCLA: Boost Your Awareness & Ease Your Stress

Philosopher Sam Harris Leads You Through a 26-Minute Guided Meditation

How Mindfulness Makes Us Happier & Better Able to Meet Life’s Challenges: Two Animated Primers Explain

Stream 18 Hours of Free Guided Meditations

Listen to Bill Murray Lead a Guided Meditation on How It Feels to Be Bill Murray

How to Take the Perfect Nap, According to Cognitive Scientist Sara Mednick

Napping is serious business, despite the fact that when some of us think of naps, we think about preschool. We’ve been taught to think of naps as something to outgrow. Yet as we age into adulthood, so many of us find it hard to get enough sleep. Millions currently suffer from sleep deprivation, whose effects range from memory loss to, well… death, if we credit the dire warnings of neuroscientist Matthew Walker. “Sleep,” Walker says, “is a non-negotiable biological necessity.”

In light of the latest research, napping begins to seem more like urgent preventive care than an indulgence. In fact, sleep expert Sara Mednick says, naps are a “miracle drug” that “increases alertness, boosts creativity, reduces stress, improves perception, stamina, motor skills, and accuracy, enhances your sex life,” helps you lose weight, feel happier, and so on, all without “dangerous side effects” and with a cost of nothing but time.

If this sounds like hype, consider the quality of the source — Dr. Sara Mednick, a professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and a fellow at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. Mednick runs a “seven-bedroom sleep lab at UCI,” notes her site, that works “literally around-the-clock to discover methods for boosting cognition through a range of different interventions, including napping.”

Maybe you’re sold on the benefits and simple pleasures of a nap — but maybe it’s been a few years since you’ve scheduled one. How long, exactly, should a grown-up nap last? The animated TED-Ed lesson above, scripted by Mednick, answers that question with a short course on sleep cycles: how we move through different stages as we snore, reaching the deepest sleep at stage 3 and concluding a cycle with R.E.M. The length of the nap we take can depend on the kinds of tasks we need to perform, and whether we need to wake up quickly and get on to other things.

Mednick expands substantially on her evidence-based advocacy for naps in her book Take a Nap! Change Your Life. (See her discuss her research on sleep and memory in the short video just above.) In the book’s introduction, she tells the story of her “journey from skeptic to nap advocate.” Here, she uses uses a different metaphor. Naps, she says, are a “secret weapon” — one she reached for just minutes before she stood up at the Salk Institute to present research on naps. “I never imagined,” she writes of her journey into napping, “that a healthy solution to facing life’s multiple challenges could be as simple and attainable as a short nap.” Given how much sleep we’re all losing lately, maybe it’s not so surprising after all.

Related Content: 

Sleep or Die: Neuroscientist Matthew Walker Explains How Sleep Can Restore or Imperil Our Health

What Happens To Your Body & Brain If You Don’t Get Sleep? Neuroscientist Matthew Walker Explains

Dr. Weil’s 60-Second Technique for Falling Asleep

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

« Go BackMore in this category... »
Quantcast
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.