Why are men attracted to low waist-to-hip ratios (WHR)? Like with a lot of our preferences, there is an evolutionary reason why men are attracted to low WHR. I came across a paper the other day by M.D. William Lassek, “Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Research Associate in the department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara” and co-author P.h.D. Steven Gaulin, Professor of Anthropology with specific research interests in “evolutionary psychology, cognitive adaptations, the human voice, sexual selection, evolution of sex differences, lipid metabolism and brain evolution.” This paper fascinates me because it talks about the evolution of human intelligence through a lens of nutrition and micronutrients, something that I’m well-read on due to my career. First, I will discuss the benefits of fish oil and the main reason for taking them: omega-3 fatty acids and DHA. Then I will discuss the WHR/intelligence theory.
Fish Oils, DPA/EPA, and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Misinformation about fish oils is rampant, specifically in the HBD-sphere, specifically with Steve Sailer’s article HBD and Diet Advice. The study he cites (with no reference) I assume is this study by Yano et al (1978) in which they found that Japanese men who ate more carbohydrates had less of a chance to die of cardiovascular heart disease (CHD). He says that the first generation ate mostly rice and no fat while the second generation “ate cheeseburgers and had higher rates of coronary disease than their parents.” He then says that these diet recommendations (low-fat, high-carb) were put onto all populations with no proven efficacy for all ethnies/racial groups. These diet recommendations began around two decades before the 80s, however.
He then quotes an article by the NYT science write, Carl Zimmer, talking about how the Inuit study has “added a new twist to the omega-3 fatty acid story”. Now, I read papers on nutrition every day due to my career, I don’t know what kind of literature they read on the subject, but fish oil, more specifically DPA/EPA and omega-3s are hugely important for optimal brain growth, health, and function.
Controlled studies clearly show that omega-3 consumption had a positive influence on n-3 (fatty acid) intake. N-3 has also been recognized as a modulator of inflammation as well as the fact that omega-3 fatty acids down-regulate genes involved in chronic inflammation, which show that n-3 is may be good for atherosclerosis.
Dietary epidemiology has also shown a link between n-3 and mental disorders such as Alzheimers and depression. N-3 intake is also linked to intelligence, vision and mood. Infants who don’t get enough n-3 prenatally are at risk for developing vision and nerve problems. Other studies have shown n-3’s effects on tumors, in particular, breast, colon and prostate cancer.
Omega-3’s are also great for muscle growth. Omega-3 intake in obese individuals along with exercise show a speed up in fat-loss for that individual.
Where do these people get their information from? Not only are omega-3’s good for damage reduction after a stroke and a heart attack, they’re also good for muscle growth, breast, colon and prostate tumor reduction, infants deficient in omega-3 prenatally are at risk for developing nerve and vision problems. Increase in omega-3 consumption is also linked to increases in cognition, reduces chronic inflammation and is linked to lower instances of depression.
Clearly, fish oils have a place in everyone’s diet, not only Inuits’.
This also reminds me of The Alternative Hypothesis’s argument that there are differing CHO metabolisms based on geographic origin (not true, to the best of my knowledge).
WHR and Intelligence
Most of the theories of the increase in brain size and intelligence have to do with climate, in one way or another, along with sexual selection. Though recently, I’ve been rethinking my position on cold winters having that big of an effect on intelligence due to some new information I’ve come across. The paper titled Waist-hip ratio and cognitive ability: is gluteofemoral fat a privileged store of neurodevelopmental resources? by Lassek and Gaudin (2008) posits a very sensible theory about the evolution of human intelligence: mainly that men prefer hour-glass figures due to an evolutionary adaptation.
Why may this be the case? One of the most important reasons I can think of is that women with high WHR have a higher chance of rate of death. The Nurses Health Study followed 44,000 women for 16 years and found that women who had waists bigger than 35 inches had a two times higher risk of dying from heart disease when compared to women with the lowest waist size of less than 28 inches. Clearly, men prefer women with low WHR since they will live longer, conceive more children and be around longer to take care of said children. So while a low WHR is not correlated with fertility per se, it is correlated with longevity, so the woman can have more children to spread more of her genes.
Lassek and Gaulin also bring up the ‘thrifty gene hypothesis’, which states that these genes evolved in populations that experienced nutritional stress, i.e., famines. I’ve read a lot of books on nutrition and human evolution (I highly recommend The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease) over the years and most of them discredit the idea of the thrifty gene hypothesis. However, recent research has shown the existence of these ‘thrifty genes’ in populations such as the Samoans and ‘Native’ Americans. It’s simple, really. Stop eating carbohydrates and the problems will fade away. (Hunter-gatherers don’t have these disease rates that we do in the West; it’s clear that the only difference is our diet and lifestyle. I will cover this in a future post titled “Diseases of Civilization”.)
Lassek and Gaulin pursued the hypothesis that gluteofemoral fat (fat stored in the thighs and buttocks) was the cause for the difference in the availability of neurodevelopmental nutrients available to a fetus. If correct, this could show why men prefer women with a low WHR and could show why we underwent such rapid brain growth: due to the availability of neurodevelopmental nutrients in the mother’s fat stores. Gluteofemoral body fat is the main source of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LPUFA) for children, along with another pertinent nutrient for fetal development: DHA. Lassek and Gaulin also state that 10 to 20 percent of the fat stored by a young woman during puberty is gluteofemoral fat, obviously priming her for childbearing. Even with caloric restriction, the gluteofemoral fat is not tapped utilized until late pregnancy/lactation when the baby needs nutrients such as DPA/EPA and omega-3s.
Further, 10 to 20 percent of the dry weight of the brain is made up of LCPUFA, which shows how important this one nutrient is for proper brain development in-vitro as well as the first few years of life. Lassek and Gaulin state:
A recent meta-analysis estimates that a child’s IQ increases by 0.13 point for every 100-mg increase in daily maternal prenatal intake of DHA (Cohen, Bellinger, Connor, & Shaywitz, 2005), and a recent study in England shows a similar positive relationship between a mother’s prenatal consumption of seafood (high in DHA) and her child’s verbal IQ (Hibbeln et al., 2007).
Along with what I cited above about these nutrients and their effects on our bodies while we’re in our adolescence and even adulthood, this is yet another huge reason WHY we should be consuming more fish oils, not only for the future intelligence of our offspring, but for our own brain health as a whole. Lassek and Gaulin state on pg. 3:
Each cycle of pregnancy and lactation draws down the gluteofemoral fat store deposited in early life; in many poorly nourished populations, this fat is not replaced, and women become progressively thinner with each pregnancy, which is termed “maternal depletion” (Lassek & Gaulin, 2006). We have recently shown that even well-nourished American women experience a relative loss of gluteofemoral fat with parity (Lassek & Gaulin, 2006). In parallel, parity is inversely related to the amount of DHA in the blood of mothers and neonates (Al, van Houwelingen, & Hornstra, 1997).
That critical fatty acids are depleted with parity is also consistent with studies showing that cognitive functioning is impaired with parity. IQ is negatively correlated with birth order (Downey, 2001), and twins have decreased DHA (McFadyen, Farquharson, & Cockburn, 2001) and compromised neurodevelopment compared to singletons (Ronalds, De Stavola, & Leon, 2005). The mother’s brain also typically decreases in size during pregnancy (Oatridge et al., 2002).
This also could explain why first born children are more intelligent than their siblings: because they have first dibs on the neurodevelopmental nutrients from the gluteofemoral fat, which aids in their brain growth and intelligence. What also lends credence to the theory is how the mother’s brain size typically decreases during pregnancy, due to the neurodevelopmental nutrients going to the child. (I also can’t help but wonder if this has any effect on Chinese IQ, since they had a nice increase in intelligence due to the Flynn Effect from 1982 to 2012. I will cover that in the future.)
“This hypothesis,” the authors write, “thus unites two derived (evolutionarily novel) features of Homo sapiens: sexually dimorphic fat distributions and large brains. On this view, a low WHR signals the availability of critical brain-building resources and should therefore have consequences for cognitive performance.”
The authors put forth three predictions for their study: 1) that a woman’s WHR should be negatively correlated with the cognitive ability of her offspring, 2) a woman’s WHR should be negatively correlated with her own intelligence since a woman passes on DPA as well as her own genes for low WHR to female offspring and 3) “cognitive development should be impaired in women whose first birth occurred early as well as in her future offspring, but lower WHRs, which indicate large stores of LCPUFA should be significantly protective for both” the mother and the child.
Lassek and Gaulin used data from the NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) III which included over 16,000 females with a mean age of 29.9 years. Measurements were taken on waist and hip circumference, WHR, BMI, and body fat as measured from bioelectrical impedance.*
For 752 “nulligravidas” (medical term for a woman who has never been pregnant), WHR explained 23 percent of the variance in total body fat estimated from the bioelectrical impedance (ugh, such a horrible measure). Moreover, “controlling for age and race/ethnicity” showed an increase of “0.01 in WHR increases total body fat by .83 kg” (1.82 pounds in freedom units). They also discovered that WHR explains 28 percent of the variance in BMI, with an increase of .47 kg per square meter, increasing the WHR by 0.01. BMI also explained 89 percent of the variance in body fat (garbage ‘body fat measuring instrument’ aside) with an increase of 1 kg per square meter increasing fat by 1.8 kg (close to 4 pounds in freedom units), but when added to the regression model, WHR made no additional contribution.
Lassek and Gaulin’s first hypothesis was corroborated when they found that the mother’s WHR was negatively correlated with the child’s intelligence on 4 cognitive tests. WHR accounted for 2.7 percent of the variation in test scores, “with a decrease of 0.01 in the mother’s current WHR increasing the child’s mean cognitive score by 0.061 points”. In the first subsample, they controlled for mother’s age, parental education, family income and race/ethnicity. Even when these variables were controlled for, WHR was still negatively correlated with the cognitive score. When these variables were controlled for, a decrease of 0.01 in WHR increased the average score by 0.024 points.
Their second hypothesis was also confirmed: that women with lower WHR would be more intelligent than women with higher WHRs. In girls aged 14-16, the WHR accounted for 3.6 percent of the variance in the average of the four cognitive tests. Also discovered was that in women aged 18 to 49, WHR accounted for 7 percent of the variance in years of education and 6 percent of the variance in two tests of cognitive ability. Even when controlling for age, parity, family income, age at first birth, and race/ethnicity, the negative correlation was still seen in 14 to 16-year-old girls.
There is also competition neurodevelopmental resources between mother and child. As I showed earlier in this article, a woman’s brain size decreases during pregnancy. This decrease in brain size during pregnancy is due to the babe getting more of the neurodevelopmental nutrients for brain growth from the mother. Clearly, as the mother’s stores of brain-growing nutrients become depleted, so does her brain size as te nutrients from her stored fat goes to developing the fetuses’ brain.
Lassek and Gaulin confirmed their hypothesis that a woman with a lower WHR would be more intelligent as well as have more intelligent children. WHR predicts the cognitive ability of the offspring while BMI does not. However, controlling for family income and parental education decreases the effect of WHR on the child’s intelligence, the effect still remains giving strong support to the hypothesis that women with low WHR pass on genes for low WHR as well as nutrients needed for neurodevelopment. Further, controlling for parental cognitive ability may mask the effects of the WHR. It’s well known that the mother’s intelligence is the best predictor for her offspring’s intelligence, which is due to the mother and grandmother passing on genes that augment the effect of LCPUFAs, along with the genes for lower WHR.
Women with a lower WHR were found to be more intelligent, and a lower WHR helps to protect cognitive resources (neurodevelopmental nutrients) for the mother and child. The mother’s body has a dilemma, though: it has to store nutrients for the mother’s own cognition; store resources for future pregnancies; and provide nutrients for their growing fetus. Obviously, especially in young mothers, this poses a problem as there is a conflict for what the brain should do with the nutrients the mother ingests. Children born to teenaged mothers have lower cognitive test scores, but, they are protected from this fate if the mother has a low WHR. This shows, definitively, that young mothers who are still growing will show no negative effects on their growth when pregnant if they have a low WHR which signals they have a large amount of LCPUFAs and other essential neurodevelopmental nutrients for the baby’s brain growth.
LCPUFAs are scarce in human diets. Thusly, an evolutionary preference for low WHR evolved for men so their children can have optimal nutrients while growing in the mother’s womb. The study confirmed that large brains, and along with it higher intelligence, and sexually dimorphic fat distribution have a strong link. Clearly, if a mother doesn’t have adequate levels of LCPUFAs, neurodevelopment will be impeded since the babe will not be getting the optimal nutrients for brain growth. Moreover, diets low in omega-3s should have consequences for intelligence and brain size of a baby, since when a baby is in the womb that is the most important time for it to get optimal brain nutrients. Is there any type of environment we can make ourselves and lifestyle choices we can take for ourselves, spouses and children to foster higher intelligence in them? I will cover that in the future.
Men love hour-glass figures, a low WHR. As I’ve shown in this article, there is an evolutionary reason for this. Men were asked to rate women who had surgery to move fat to their buttocks. Body weight stayed the same, but the fat was redistributed. It was found in brain scans of the men that the same parts of the brain related to reward lit up, including regions associated with drugs and alcohol. (more information here)
I’ve long known of the tons of positive benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil on human brain development. Fish oils and the nutrients in them are imperative for a healthy and growing brain. Without it, brain development will suffer. As a man, I can say firsthand that a low WHR is the most attractive. Now I understand the evolutionary reason behind it: fostering high intelligence due to the mothers lower-body fat stores. Omega-3s and LCPUFA are extremely important for optimal fetal brain growth. Moreover, the current American diet is low in omega-3s, while high in omega-6s. There is evidence of high omega-6 intake being related to obesity, metabolic syndromes, a progressive increase in body fat over the generations. The omega-6 and -3 ratios in the body also play a role in obesity, with a lower omega-3 ratio and higher omega-6 ratio being related to obesity. This is due to adipogenesis, browning of the fat tissue, lipid homeostasis, and systemic inflammation. Clearly, as shown in this article, it’s imperative to have a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. This could also have to do with the hyperactivity of the cannabinoid system (which we all know what that’s involved with: eating more) and that could also be a cause for obesity with out-of-whack omega-6 to -3 fatty acid levels in the body. That’s for another day, though.
The totality of evidence is clear. If you want healthy children, choose a mate with a low WHR. She and her offspring will be more likely to be more intelligent. Clearly, if you’re reading this, you’re interested in intelligence as well as having the best possible life and life outcomes for your children. Well, choose a woman with a low WHR and you’ll be more likely to have more intelligent children!
* I have one problem with this study. They assessed body fat with bioelectrical impedance. The machine sends a light electrical current through the body and measures the degree of resistance to the flow of the current, which body fat can then be estimated. Problems with measuring body fat this way are as follows: it depends on how hydrated you are, whether you exercised that day, when you last ate, even whether your feet are calloused. Most importantly, they vary depending on the machine as well. Two differing machines will give two differing estimates. This is my only problem with the study. I would like if, in a follow-up study, they would use the DXA scan or hydrostatic weighing. These two techniques would be much better than using bioelectrical impedance, as the variables that prevent bioelectrical impedance from being a good way to measure body fat don’t exist with the DXA scan or hydrostatic weighing.