Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tribal Fattening Practices

While in America "thin is in," in some cultures around the world "fat is where it's at." One such culture can be found in the desert-streaked country of Mauritania, located in West Africa. Here, the true marker of beauty and health in a woman is the amount of rolls she has. But there's one problem: human beings eating normal amounts of natural foods don't get obese and overweight, and the common foods available in West Africa include raw goat's milk, meat, millet, couscous, dates, peanuts, and other whole foods. While most of us in the Western world can easily become fat through years of eating fattening, unnatural, metabolism-altering foods like high-fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, and high-gluten white flour, the Mauritanian people don't have such "luxuries" -- so they resort to good old-fashioned force-feeding to accomplish the task.

The Mauritanian fattening practice, called leblouh, takes place when young women enter a tiny sandstone hut. Inside resides an old woman, the "fattener," whose primary job in the community is to make sure these young women (sometimes beginning as young as 5-years-old) become plump and, thus, attractive and suitable for marraige.

Obvious moral and ethical implications of this practice aside, I thought it would be interesting to find out just how much food is utilized to accomplish the fattening. I was surprised to find out that these women typically are force-fed -- to the point of nasuea and vomiting at times -- a whole-foods diet of up to 16,000 calories. This includes four meals per day of:

...crushed dates and peanuts with couscous and oil ... cloying, egg-size balls of around 300 calories apiece. Each girl eats about 40 per day, along with 12 pints of goat's milk and gruel ... (Source)

To bolster the fattening process, the women also must not get any exercise whatsoever, remaining in the huts for several years until they are married off. Additionally, because the task of eating such inordinate amounts of food is so physically challenging to the young women, the old woman "fattener" threatens to beat them if they refuse to eat.

Because the Mauritanian women are limited to traditional foods, which lead to satiety rather quickly due to high nutrient content and are difficult to overeat, some have sought out methods to increase their appetite unnaturally to be able to gain those extra pounds of beauty. One such method is the purchase of certain pharmaceuticals:

Sold secretly at city markets, they include hormones used to fatten camels and chickens, and steroids for asthma and cancer ... (Source)

The difficulty inherent in these traditional peoples' ability to gain weight while eating whole foods challenges the notion, once again, that carbohydrates lead to obesity. Here we have a culture whose only way of fattening young women is by force-feeding them massive amounts of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. If to fatten the young women it was only necessary to emphasize carbohydrates in the diet, as Gary Taubes and other low-carb proponents might suggest, then why must the women be forced to eat excessive amounts food to become overweight? Why not just eat millet and couscous and dates? Many modernized folks seem to have no trouble at all gaining unneeded weight while eating far less than 16,000 calories. Yet these Mauritanian women must resort to appetite increasing drugs or the threat of a beating while eating about that much food to do the same:

Although hardly skeletal at 5'6" and 180 pounds, Hawer [a 26-year-old Mauritanian woman] says she has trouble piling on weight, and was teased by plumper girls as a teenager. Recently, her husband told her that he "didn't like sleeping with a bag of bones. Desperate to be bigger, Hawer uses drugs to aid weight gain." (Source)

It's the quality of food that's the difference. Traditional versus modern food. High-fructose corn syrup, one the great fatteners in the indutrialized nations, would be a prized commodity in Mauritania.

One other interesting observation is that the older women in the culture, who have already gone through the fattening process during their younger years and have resumed eating a normal amount of traditional foods, appear to be at a healthy weight. Did they diet to lose their weight? I doubt it. Below is a picture of women who are campaigning against the practice of leblouh. All have gone through the leblouh in their youth, and none of them remain overweight:


Anonymous said...

Keep in mind that they're being fattened up in three months (the length of time that the woman wielding the whip takes with each charge) and being fattened very young. Not in their twenties, but in their early teens. And they don't have years of sugar consumption running up to the fattening ceremony or a mother who might have primed them in the womb to be hyperinsulinemic or insulin resistant with her high-sugar and carb consumption. So the intrauterine environment is different as are the years leading up to the fattening.

chlOe said...

"fattened girl, late 19th century"

No but seriously, that's pretty messed up. I've heard of this happening in India as well. I can't even imagine 16,000 calories a day for that length of time. But I'm guessing it's more than just force feeding, and the effect such physical and mental stress has on a person. I mean, shunned from society for months with a lack of sun and beaten to eat and refrain from throwing up or moving much? God damn, that's crazy.
And have any idea what kind of hormones they're taking? By the looks of it, it seems as if they have the fat disposition (stomach area) of high estrogen or high cortisol. Which would make sense.

Ryan Koch said...


Actually, I read in a few places that Mauritanian women would begin fattening around age 5 to be ready for marraige around age 12 or 14. You may be thinking of a different culture or a subset of this one, as I have heard of shorter time periods, as well.

When the women reach their 20s, many are trying to remain fat by any means possible to please their husbands. This proves to be difficult enough on food alone to warrant use of appetite increasing drugs.

My point concerning the faulty reasoning of the carbohydrate hypothesis is that the women are consuming considerable amounts of carbohydrates in the form of starch and lactose and natural fruit sugars. These are all carbs, yet they still struggle to gain and maintain weight while eating gobs of food. When these young women have children, the children aren't insulin resistant as one would expect. Instead, any daughters, too, must be fattened the same way.

I hear what you're saying about sugar consumption (really, HFCS) altering the metabolism of folks to the extent that they are insulin resistent. This is what I was getting at by mentioning the quality of carbs. Because the women were raised on benign starches and sugars, along with adequate animal foods (read: balanced hormones, optimal health), they probably stand a better chance of retaining their insulin sensitivity.

But there are folks out there who reversed their type-2 diabetes by simply eliminating HFCS, sugar, trans fats, veggie oil, and white flour. So it's possible, even if insulin sensitivity is "damaged" through years of poor diet. I'm not a big believer in the "carbs are poison" position these days.

Ryan Koch said...


They're taking hormones used to "fatten camels and chickens" -- any idea what types of hormones those could be?

chlOe said...

I googled briefly and the first thing I saw was "synthetic estrogens used to fatten chickens" What what?? yeeeahh! Though, that's probably one among many. The other one I can think of for cows is rBGH - and I'm not sure if that's for fat or just for growth in general.

Anyway, you've got some really great points about how people have to be consistently fattened with each generation! It's so true that the monsterous nutrient deprived stuff we've got plowing through people in America is pretty much not one bit like that of natural carbohydrates found in Africa.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Ryan,

Nice post, very interesting.

PaleoRD said...

16,000 kcal per day is absolutely incredible. I'm trying to eat 4000 kcal per day right now, and it is hard to make yourself eat a lot when not really hungry. But eating 4X the amount I'm eating now! They must have excellent digestion!


Matt Stone said...

The drug of choice is probably some kind of corticosteroid. What they really need are some SSRI antidepressants. Then they could skip the whole process.

I think Oprah should go there and give them counsel, instead of trying to counsel fat people on how to get thin.

I have no idea how they do it. It's amazing. 16,000 calories of real food is unbelievable. I managed to get down 4-5k by noon the other day after vegan-diet-induced hyperphagia, but couldn't even force myself to eat dinner later in the day.

Pepsi and Coke should get on this story and provide a great humanitarian service to these poor girls. Mom should also go on a low-calorie french fry and Coke diet prior to conception to give these girls a better shot at obesity.

Sweet post Ryan.

Poor Taubes. So close but yet so far. It's sad that a carbo-phobe was intelligent enough to bust out this quote, and then turn his back on the very logic that got him there:

“If cavities are caused primarily by eating sugar and white flour, and cavities appear first in a population no longer eating its traditional diet, followed by obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, then the assumption, until proved otherwise, should be that the other diseases were also caused by these carbohydrates.”
-Gary Taubes; Good Calories, Bad Calories (2007).

chlOe said...

Why would cortisol be used on livestock (I've never heard of that, but that could just be me, haha)? It makes more sense that they would use some form of sex hormone such as estrogen to fatten them.

Anonymous said...

If to fatten the young women it was only necessary to emphasize carbohydrates in the diet, as Gary Taubes and other low-carb proponents might suggest, then why must the women be forced to eat excessive amounts food to become overweight?

I don't see how this challenges the carbohydrate hypothesis: they do eat carbs (along with protein and fat) and they do fatten. But they wouldn't need to eat the proteins and fats to become obese. Witness the Pima Indians who did it perfectly well with carb heavy diets. The Mauritanians also eat fructose, which Taubes points out is particularly fattening.

Ryan Koch (Health Matters to Me) said...

The point is that if eating solely carbohydrates was a way to fatten the women faster, they would only be eating millet and dates -- a low-fat, high-carb diet. However, this isn't the case, and they seem to instead eat a diet very rich in all the macronutrients. Mainly they seem to emphasize eating massive amounts of calories, which have to be force-fed to the women. Key words: force-fed. Sumo wrestlers fatten up on a very high-calorie diet, particularly rich in protein and carbohydrates.

When the Mauritanian women eat their natural, starch-based diet to satisfaction they remain a normal weight, just as the Pimas do when eating their traditional diet.

The Pimas (whose diet I know a considerable amount about as I used to live in Tucson and study local native cultures) were not obese while eating their native foods, such as mesquite flour, tepary beans, squash, corn, and cactus fruits, along with animal foods. Taubes himself even cites that the Pimas only became obese once exposed to white flour and white sugar.

Before Western influence, however, they were still eating a high-carb diet as they were primarily agriculturalists in the last few centuries. It was the fact that industrialized foods displaced their traditional foods and opened them up for a slew of nutritional deficiencies, metabolic disorders, obesity, and degeneration -- all things further compounded by the effects of wheat and sugar. Their health plight was not caused by carbs, but by a nutritionally deficient diet of white flour and refined sugar.

Taubes makes the same case, yet then he goes on to blame carbs and insulin reactions on the ill health of the world, completly ignoring all healthy high-carb cultures, such as the traditional Pimas and others. I re-examined the validity of the low-carb movement here.

Re: Fructose

The only thing Taubes acknowledges as being harmful in terms of fructose is the stuff that is chemically produced and horribly unnatural. And, yes, artificial fructose does have very detrimental effects on human health. However, fructose from whole fruit sugars has not been proven to have the same effect. A diet rich in high-fructose corn syrup, for example, has been shown to lead to obesity (and other major metabolic disorders), while eating a diet rich in fruit has not.

The Maurtinians eat dates, but again, if the dates contributed largely to their obesity, why aren't dates a bigger part of their fattening diet? Why not simply eat 3,000 calories of dates and watch the weight pile on? It's the excessive, force-fed calories from all the macronutrient groups that ultimately does the trick.

Charise said...

I think part of the point is that 16,000 calories of anything per day is going to fatten you up. And millet and couscous don't contain gluten, do they? So those have sort of been touted as "eatable in small quantities" for paleo/low carb people. So they are eating quality grains that don't cause an insulin surge, along with exceptionally fatty and protein rich foods. That sounds like the perfect diet if they weren't being force fed for 10+ years.
Try feeding them white flour breads, cookies and cakes and throw in some Kraft Dinner and see them puff up. Not all carbs are evil - it's just hard to see why anyone would eat them in excess when most of them besides veggies don't offer much of anything except an insulin rush and you have to eat them every 2 hours.

Ryan Koch @ Health Matters to Me said...

Hi Charise,

Definitely. 16,000 calories is going to do the trick no matter what foods are eaten (unless you're eating nothing but protein!). What I find most interesting about these women is the amount of suffering they have to go through just to gain weight, while many modern folks eating a SAD diet have no problem at all piling on the weight. And the reason, as you pointed out, is the quality of the foods eaten. It's damn hard to get fat on a real foods diet. Throw in some HFCS and white flour, and it becomes a lot easier.

Couscous contains gluten if made from wheat obviously, but in Mauritania I've read that it is made from millet. So you're probably right that they were eating a gluten-free diet.

As far as carbs causing "nothing but an insulin rush," I disagree with you here. Carbs provide quick energy and energy storage as glycogen. Eat enough of them and they get converted to saturated fat in the body. They are also useful in sparing lean muscle loss, just as fat is. Also, an insulin rush isn't really a bad thing in a healthy body. It's a natural body response that human beings have for utilizing carbohydrate. If you're talking nutrients, though, carbs are far less nutrient dense and bioavailable than animal foods.

Martin Berkhan said...

"I think part of the point is that 16,000 calories of anything per day is going to fatten you up"

REALLY? "Part of the point"?

How about the whole fucking point?

danh said...

maybe what anonymous is trying to say that there may not be enough people in this country to have tried all the dieting approaches aka just the high carbohydrate diet.

I heard humans have receptors for fat and protein satiety but not for carbs, so maybe the mixing of foods is the problem that makes these women full.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, some great discussion. 16,000kcal will create weight gain but it could be so much easier. Some key facts here - high fat, high fiber moderates the insulin affects of the carbs & consequently insulin metabolism - hence, limiting the effectiveness of the fattening diet and increasing satiety. I would postulate that if they were to feed all carb, minimal fats & proteins they would get faster/better results. However, I bet they also want a healthy, fertile wife -so to just be fat, only on carbs, may not be the ideal. Since the girls can be coerced - this is the "compromise" they evolved over generations to get a fat/fertile wife.

It does not necessarily absolve carbs. And, obesity is not the only negative affect of a poor diet - plenty of skinny folks w/ CVD, cancer & DM1&2. Yes, sugar & white flour are junk carbs... however, being someone w/ epigenetic deformities of a small dental arch, crowded teeth, mild spinal bifida etc. Yet, having the great fortune to be raised on mostly whole foods, as a child - plenty of lard fried meat from the butcher & garden veggies, butter(my mom made me eat "brown" bread).. then as an adult - following the whole foods, organic, plant based, PUFA, grass fed lean meat focus (NO HFCS, no white bread, minimal sugar), nutrient dense, low enviro toxins - it still led to high HgA1cs, high "normal" glucose and trig/HDL of >2....indicative of insulin resistance & "inflammatory" issues not yet manifest as overt disease. I chose not to wait for the heart attack or DM2. I got off the wheat & other "benign" grain/legume carbs, went high natural animal fat (70% of total calories)and lost 8 lbs (128 to 120, 5'3"), normal glucose & trig/HDL=.64 while eating 3000-400kcals/day, no change in exercise.

So, I find it difficult to tag just white flour & sugar - I did not eat it. Neither was it "lack of nutrient density", ... It was the "other" carbs & lectins, phytic acid, gluten and lack of healthy fat.

Healthy levels of fat in the diet moderate the insulin affects of concentrated carbs, as does the fiber in high fiber veggies. Which is typical of most pre-industrialized diets. And, "natural" fructose, at servings of 4-5 fruits per day will increase your triglycerides, which can cause weight gain, insulin resistance and lead to a pro-inflammatory environment in the body. Grains, potatoes,cassava are "famine" foods - eat when you don't have enough of the "good stuff". High amounts of fruit are not much safer. And, we haven't even discussed the benefits of raw goats milk & fermented food yet. It's all just a bit more complex than "white flour & sugar" & "benign" carbs. I really do love cheese cake tho.

williebr said...

Very neat post.

One point is that just because they don't feed them an all carb Date + couscous diet, doesn't mean that it also would not get the job done.

The sumo also train quite a bit; but I don't think that it is also true that you must spend hours a day practicing a sport to become morbidly obese.

But, my point shouldn't take away from the post. Very nice work.