Wealth and Obesity: A Bolivian Perspective

As our regular readers will recall, my partner, Marina, and I are travelling for the summer throughout South America as a means to celebrate the successful defense of both of our PhDs (Read about our travel adventures and reflections here).

I know things are hitting the fan at SciBlogs with the whole PepsiCo sponsored blog fiasco. I only superficially understand the ensuing controversy.

Alas, I have VERY limited internet access available, and thus would prefer to discuss another issue which I have noticed while moving through Bolivia for the past 2 weeks.

I've previously discussed the issue of wealth and obesity, from a historical perspective. In essence, throughout most of history, only those individuals with plentiful disposable income could afford to eat enough and move little enough to accumulate significant girth.

Accordingly, one's weight was a direct positive indicator of their wealth and power.

Today, the situation is largely reversed. The richest people also tend to be the leanest.

At least this is the case in North America.

What I am seeing in South America, and specifically what I've noticed over the past 2 weeks moving quickly through Bolivia, is in fact, the opposite.

We've travelled through the following Bolivian cities and towns: La Paz, Uyuni, Potosi, Sucre, and Santa Cruz.

In some of these places, namely Uyuni, the average socioeconomic level is extremely low.
The town has no paved streets, no streetlights, and very few places to buy anything - especially food.

Here, one is hard-pressed to find an individual who is overweight or obese.

There's simply no extra food to be had, even if one could afford it.

On the other hand, as the level of wealth increases, so does the frequency of overweight bodies.

For example, I am currently writing this from a café in Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz is one of the wealthiest cities, and the 2nd most populated in Bolivia. Despite what many imagine Bolivia might look like, and what I have seen over the past number of days, this place feels more like North America than Bolivia.

There are plenty of folks driving more expensive cars than I have ever been in: Hummers and BMW's are common.

The clothing stores sell merchandise only in US dollars.

And the streets are lined with desert and ice cream parlors.

Not to mention various Bolivian reincarnations of fast food: fried chicken seems to be a favorite.

Along with the increased presence of this unexpected wealth and plentiful palatable food in Santa Cruz, is the significantly greater presence of overweight and obesity.

Sadly, I feel more at home here - with the greasy food and expanded waistlines than anywhere else in Bolivia.

Thankfully, for the first time since we started travelling, our hostel actually has a gym, albeit a severely derelict one, which I have been able to use this morning to work off the ice cream consumed yesterday.

I could not have been happier to see those rusted dumbbells and dust covered benches.

My hands still retain some of the rust from the dumbbells used this morning.


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My husband's family has a number of concentration camp survivors in it, and all of them, while recognizing health costs, felt that some measure of extra weight was comforting to them - and also a reassurance just in case anyone ever went through that again. I am not thin, and would speak disparaging of my extra weight, only to have my husband's family members suggest that I was very fortunate. Whatever its merits in an affluent society, it was a useful reminder of the degree to which circumstances shape one's perspectives.


It is known that the genes which "bring on" obesity in those with far more than they need to consume weer once survival mechanisms. It is still true. One must put the whole obesity thing into perspective: survival of the fittest is the way of the natural world. Really obese people are not fit- thus shouldn't survive. It is the way the world works. Humans just have a really irritating habit of finding ways around that "survival of the fittest thing," no matter the cost to the rest of the world in general. We will kill ourselves off, and sadly take a lot of other things with us.

Survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the buffest. It means those that are best able to profit from their environment win by surviving and reproducing. If you can do that while holding extra weight, then you are the fittest in this sense.

By Aaron Richoux (not verified) on 09 Jul 2010 #permalink

Sharon's point is a good one. I'm not thin anymore, but I was really skinny when I was homeless. And partly I'm now fat because for years after my financial situation improved I had huge problems with bingeing, which was an important survival tactic. When you hit the food motherlode, you had to eat it because it could be days before you'd get more. It took me years to train myself not to overeat when the possibility presented itself (e.g. huge servings, free food at events, etc.) because on a gut level I couldn't convince my body that I'd have access to food tomorrow. It's taken me about 15 years to get to the point where I can stop eating because I believe I'll have access to food when I get hungry later.

My experience while living in Central America was that only the rural poor were reliably thin throughout their lives. Poor people living in cities or larger villages with easy access to cheap processed foods were (more often than not) overweight by age 30. Most of the people I knew (urban, poor, young adults who grew up with abusive and/or neglectful caregivers) consumed at least one soda per day. This habit was so important to maintain, many were willing to fall behind on other financial obligations or forego more nutritious foods in order to continue buying sodas and other refined carb snacks. I witnessed a lot of racist sentiment toward the subsistence farmers, even from people who were mostly of native heritage themselves. That might explain part of the reason why traditional foods are so readily rejected, though I suspect sugar is ample motivation all by itself.

Of the wealthy people I observed, the women tended to be very thin (eating disorders were reportedly on the rise) while the wealthy men were fatter at a younger age than the poor men.

By Ides of Ulven (not verified) on 09 Jul 2010 #permalink

I was thinking the other day about this, and how in Classical times, Aristotle (IIRC) wrote about sufficient leisure being a requirement for leading a life of the mind.

Nowadays, in the developed world the situation has reversed, and only those with sufficient leisure can afford to lead a life of the body.

It's frustrating for me, because I do brain work 40 hours a week (I'm a technical writer), and any leisure time I spend working on my body is time I'm not spending learning and thinking. (I'm not making excuses; just saying it's frustrating.)

(On a side note, the brain consumes shitloads of glucose when it's working, and that requires eating food, even though the rest of my body is motionless. I wish there was some way to send glucose directly to my brain while bypassing the rest of my body. Is there any research on the relationship between brainwork and obesity?)

I can see why the richest people are the leanest. Good food, and personal trainers