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Fat once revered as sign of health, wealth

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Once upon a time, poor people were thin and rich people were fat. Not any more.

The point was made during testimony on the genetics of body weight last fall, when members of Congress were treated to slides of President William Howard Taft, Socrates and King Henry VIII -- all fat, prosperous men.

Only the rich had access to enough food to gain large amounts of weight during most of human history, said Dr. David Cummings, an obesity researcher at the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Healthcare System and the University of Washington, who incorporated the slides into his talk.

"There were obese people all the way down the ages in the upper classes," Cummings said.

And fat was often revered as a sure sign of good health and prosperity.

The Venus of Willendorf, an ancient carving unearthed in 1908, depicts a robust woman's body with large hips, full breasts and a fleshy belly.

"She's just outright fat," Cummings said.

Emaciated men waiting in bread lines during the Great Depression no longer represent the face of poverty in the United States.

For the most part, "We don't have starvation and we don't have extreme malnutrition," said Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

In recent decades, labor-saving devices, including washing machines and tractors, have virtually eliminated the calorie-burning manual labor jobs that were once the province of the poor, said Popkin.

In addition, government subsidies of corn and beef have put fatty, rich foods within reach of poor families, Popkin said.

"We have a lot of people with economic uncertainty and you buy the cheapest most filling foods when you're in those circumstances," he said.

Developing nations are now seeing the same trend, with increasing numbers of obese and overweight counted among poor women, according to a recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity.

But in nations with the lowest gross national products, it's still uncommon for the poor to carry extra pounds, the study found.

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