Shock research: Humans now fatter than pigs

Pigging out: Modern farming methods explain the pigs’ dramatic weight loss.

Is it wrong to be fat and lazy? Many of us now have more body fat than pigs, scientists said yesterday. But for most of history, being plump and idle was regarded as the goal of a good life.

For the first time in history, humans are becoming fatter than pigs, a new study has disclosed.

Changes in the way pigs are bred and reared are producing a significantly leaner animal, with only 16% fat by weight compared with well over 20% two decades ago.

Humans have been heading in the opposite direction. The body of a typical middle-aged man with the national average BMI (body mass index) of 27.5 now comprises 21% to 25% fat by weight. For women, the figure is 33% to 38%.

As long as a person is not clinically obese (defined as fat in a way that is dangerous to health), is there anything wrong with being plump?

Beauty has always been highly subjective: the “ideal body type” has changed countless times throughout history.

Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty, was portrayed by sculptors as curvy and round. Up until the 18th Century, most artists depicted the “perfect woman” as voluptuous and reclining luxuriously.

Indeed, the compliment “Rubenesque” is named after the 17th-Century artist Rubens, who painted women with larger bodies.

Today, opinions around the world about fatness differ enormously. While Western fashion magazines are traditionally focused on thin runway models, in Mauritania, for example, obesity has long been considered the ideal standard of beauty, signalling wealth and prosperity in a land plagued by drought.

But with a quarter of women officially classified as obese, Mauritania’s government has launched a television campaign highlighting the risks of obesity, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Public health campaigners may be facing an uphill battle. Humans have an evolutionary instinct to be lazy, says Harvard professor David Lieberman. Our ancestors used so much energy hunting, they would rest whenever possible. Today, the tendency to inactivity remains a profound natural instinct.

Some researchers believe idleness may actually promote creativity. In fact, Oxford sleep scientists say that school days should start later to improve learning and allow children more time to rest.

Not everyone agrees. Psychologist Claudia Hammond argues that humans are happier when engaged in activity.

A study by the University of Virginia found that people left alone with an electric shock button in an empty room for 15 minutes were incapable of relaxing. Rather than simply doing nothing, nearly half of the participants chose to give themselves electric shocks instead!

So, is it wrong to be plump – and to enjoy long spells of doing remarkably little?

As fat as a pig

Yes, say some. There is a reason rich countries now worship at the altar of the lean body and constant activity. As long as we are not too thin, many studies suggest eating less helps us live longer. And a dynamic person who makes the most of every day is far more appealing than a lazy person.

No, say others. The Western world is in the grip of an epidemic of anxiety. To justify our unhappiness, we have turned “fat” and “lazy” into moral crimes. The truth is that being healthy, happy, fat, and lazy is not a contradiction in terms. For most of the past 2,000 years, it was a state to be wished for devoutly. We need to chill out and admit it – being fatter than a modern pig is great!

You Decide

  1. Is the word “fat” offensive?
  2. Is society too obsessed with body image?

Activities

  1. Keep a record this week recording your “lazy time”. At the end of the week, consider: did you feel better or worse on the days when you were most lazy?
  2. Research the meaning of body mass index (BMI) and look up your healthy parameters. Work out how you measure up.

Some People Say...

“Idleness for me is not a giving up on life, but a spirited grabbing hold of it.”

Tom Hodgkinson, British journalist and editor of The Idler magazine

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that it is unhealthy to be either very overweight or underweight. In the UK, the NHS suggests that having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered healthy for adults. A BMI of above 30 is considered to be a marker of obesity. BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether BMI is still a useful tool. Not everyone believes it is a good indicator of how healthy a person is. It is easy to calculate, but it cannot distinguish between weight from fat and weight from muscle or bone. As a result, it sometimes wrongly characterises fit people as being overweight – for example, athletes often weigh more than other people of the same height due to extra muscle growth.

Word Watch

Subjective
Influenced by personal feelings and opinions, rather than factual evidence.
Voluptuous
A curvy or rounded body (usually, to describe a woman).
Rubens
Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a Flemish painter and diplomat. He is best known for his paintings of women, which emphasise physical beauty and fertility.
Mauritania
A country in northwest Africa. In 2018, Mauritania’s worst drought in recent years affected 600,000 people.
Diabetes
A disease which occurs when a person’s blood sugar is too high and can cause heart and nerve problems. Obesity is associated with Type 2 diabetes. Estimates suggest 5 million people will have diabetes in the UK in 2025.
Sleep scientists
Dr Paul Kelley of Oxford University has suggested that schools should start at 10am to align with the adolescent body clock.

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