Fat is genetic
June 19, 2007 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Fat is Genetic, from NY Times science writer (and sister of Judi Bari) Gina Kolata.
posted by serazin (126 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
From her new book.
posted by serazin at 10:06 AM on June 19, 2007




But I just bought three months' worth of lowfat yogurt!
posted by scratch at 10:07 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


I went to the beach last weekend and got hammered on gina kolata's.
posted by vronsky at 10:09 AM on June 19, 2007 [4 favorites]


I don't think it is "fat" which the study is claiming to be generic, but rather "hunger."
posted by j-urb at 10:09 AM on June 19, 2007


An article from May 8, 2007 about whether obesity is genetically based, excerpted from a book published on May 1? It takes more than that to make a lengthy, bitter MeFi thread, I'm afraid.

Now, if this were an article about how circumcision causes weight loss, we'd be getting somewhere.
posted by Prospero at 10:10 AM on June 19, 2007


hammered on Gina Kolata's what?
posted by Eekacat at 10:10 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


80 percent of the offspring of two obese parents become obese

As a child of two very overweight peopel, this is a statistic that has chilled me since I first heard it when I was a kid. But if I didn't know this, and so didn't remain vigilant in my own life, I might be overweight by now. So thanks, Dr. Stunkard!
posted by amro at 10:11 AM on June 19, 2007


So why are people in the US getting fatter?
posted by OmieWise at 10:11 AM on June 19, 2007


oh man, I smell at least one metatalk callout by the end of the day. not for the posts, though. I think these are good posts.
posted by shmegegge at 10:14 AM on June 19, 2007


So why are people in the US getting fatter?
posted by OmieWise at 1:11 PM on June 19 [+] [!]


I wondered that, too.
posted by shmegegge at 10:14 AM on June 19, 2007


So why are people in the US getting fatter?
Easy access to more calories.

Yeah, I think the right way to interpret this is that there's one study that indicates that obesity might have a genetic component, but the jury is still out.

I see plenty of fat people wolfing down massive amounts of food. Is it that they're actually naturally thin, and if they'd just put down the goddamn twinkie the fat would melt away? Maybe, but I'm doubtful.
posted by bshort at 10:21 AM on June 19, 2007


This is not a snark on the post:

I thought we already knew this? Or when it made headlines phrase it as "New Studies Suggest...." and now we know for sure?
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 10:22 AM on June 19, 2007


The aisles after aisles of bucket sized ice cream and feedbag sized chips have nothing to do with American obesity, it's just BIG BONES!
posted by Artw at 10:24 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


Actually, these are pretty old studies. They're just widely ignored. And of course studies don't 'prove' anything forever. But these studies strongly suggest that some people have a much easier time gaining (and losing) weight that other people. And that when a very large person loses a lot of weight, her or his body reacts as if the person is starving.

Didn't take it as a snark citrus.
posted by serazin at 10:24 AM on June 19, 2007


I also wonder how much of it is due to a fairly substantial body weight change in a relatively short period of time. I mean people gain and / or lose weight (generally) over the course of years. If you're body is used to getting a certain amount of calories and having the metabolism at a certain level for years and years...then you change it for 4 months...is that gradual enough for the body to not want to revert to its norm? Or can you gradually lower its norm?
posted by Wink Ricketts at 10:26 AM on June 19, 2007


I see plenty of fat people wolfing down massive amounts of food. Is it that they're actually naturally thin, and if they'd just put down the goddamn twinkie the fat would melt away? Maybe, but I'm doubtful.

Well, I think part of the issue is that his study implies that hunger is genetic, but not necessarily hunger for twinkies. As you said, we have easier access to more calories, and that calorie increase is in the form of far fattier foods. This genetic hunger seems to respond to weight rather than amount eaten, but it seems like further study is needed to determine precisely how it reacts in varying situations including but not exclusive to massive intake of exceptionally low fat food. Could one satisfy the hunger cravings through large amounts of celery? or is it simply that unless you're 250 you're going to be starving?
posted by shmegegge at 10:27 AM on June 19, 2007


80 percent of the offspring of two obese parents become obese

Unless, of course, the parents eat their offspring.
posted by jonmc at 10:29 AM on June 19, 2007 [4 favorites]


So why are people in the US getting fatter?

Too many fat people doin' it.
posted by Esoquo at 10:32 AM on June 19, 2007 [6 favorites]


"Fat is genetic." Um, no it's not.
posted by MarshallPoe at 10:35 AM on June 19, 2007


Ok, so why are there so few fat people in NYC? Do they just not like squeezing their bulk into tiny New York apartments?
posted by bshort at 10:41 AM on June 19, 2007


Ok, so why are there so few fat people in NYC?

Most are in Queens and the Bronx.
posted by jonmc at 10:42 AM on June 19, 2007


there are a lot of fat people in nyc, there are just also a lot of hip trendy people who move to nyc because they just know that they're a big fish in a small pond in their hometown. unsurprisingly, this attitude is found more in attractive people.
posted by shmegegge at 10:42 AM on June 19, 2007


So why are people in the US getting fatter?

Absolutely the key question in my opinion, OmieWise.

I don't have any knowledge about the specific protocols of the studies discussed in these links, but I think such studies often mislead us by screening out subjects with preexisting health problems. In the case of obesity, I'm starting to think various factors are conspiring to make our collective thyroid levels lower than they ought to be for optimal levels of body fat.
posted by jamjam at 10:48 AM on June 19, 2007


We don't excuse ugly because it's genetic. Now get away from me, you hideous goddamn Morlocks.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:53 AM on June 19, 2007


Ok, allow me to elaborate on the "Um, no it's not comment" (mostly because I'm bored). Of course it is not true that "all a person has to do is eat less and exercise more" to lose weight permanently if they are chronically overweight. Of course it's "genetic" because most everything is genetic to some degree. No real surprise here. The over-eating in question looks a lot like an addiction because it is. And it has to be treated like an addiction if it's going to be treated at all. Almost every alcoholic can stop drinking for a while. Sometimes even a long while. All that proves it that you can stop drinking for a while, not that you aren't genetically predisposed to abuse alcohol (or whatever your favorite poison is). The alcoholic will almost always go back to his/her old habits. They are too comforting. I would guess that it's the same with chronically overweight people. Sure, they can white-knuckle it for a while and lose weight. But the disposition remains, unless it's treated. You have to change the way you think and live if you want to beat it, and diets aren't going to do it.

I think. Maybe. Not really sure.
posted by MarshallPoe at 10:54 AM on June 19, 2007


"Fat is genetic." Um, no it's not.

Excellent rebuttal, but have you considered the implications of my 2006 study, "Is Too," as published in The New England Journal of Like, Duh?
posted by designbot at 10:55 AM on June 19, 2007 [71 favorites]


Wait, on re-reading that post it turns out I'm not bored, I'm boring....
posted by MarshallPoe at 10:57 AM on June 19, 2007


Standing around 5'7" (and born in 1963), I felt chronically hungry when I weighed less than 125# -- but maybe that was because that was back in the old days (late 1970s - early '80s) when poor Americans had trouble getting enough calories. Add a decade or so, an adequate diet and an SSRI prescription, and I stabilized for a few years while at around 135 pounds. Then lo! and behold! middle age hit during a chilly rainy gloomy San Francisco winter and I got up to 170# without really noticing; I managed to drop 20 of those pounds when the sun came back out but it took some doing. Now, another 10 years later, I'm back up to 170#: 7 years ago I finally got tired of constant asthma and quit smoking, gained a few pounds, and haven't weighed less than 160 pounds in years. I should perhaps add that my parents were both thin even when they ate all they wanted, while my 43 year old sister and I are both a bit tubby.

So how does my case apply to this thead?
posted by davy at 11:00 AM on June 19, 2007


We can talk this thing to death (and have) but people get fatter and nothing works to stop the trend. "But it's so easy" some say, but people get fatter. I predict that whoever comes up with a solution that works will win the nobel prize and will become filthy rich.
posted by UseyurBrain at 11:03 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


designbot, I think I love you.

Alcoholics have to stay away from alcohol. Drug addicts have to stop using drugs. You can't stay away from food.
posted by misha at 11:07 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think the solution is well known. Getting people to do it is the problem.
posted by Artw at 11:08 AM on June 19, 2007


So how does my case apply to this thead?

Fat mailman.
posted by Esoquo at 11:08 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


My pet theory is people just quit eating enough vegetables.

Mom works, dad works, no one is at home peeling carrots anymore. And Mom and Dad are too tired to insist that Junior eat his peas and carrots.

Not to mention the explosion of soda drinking. When I was a kid soda came in little bottles (think 8 or 11 oz) and children were limited to one per day IF that many. A two liter was only seen at the county fair, and to get one you had to win the ring toss game with it.

Back in those days people told each other not to eat too much, and eating all you wanted was not encouraged.

Fast forward to now. No wonder we are all heavier.
posted by konolia at 11:11 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


Fat mailman.

Somebody mailed him fat? Sounds messy.
posted by jonmc at 11:13 AM on June 19, 2007


Yeah, and fat families tend to have fat pets. How is that genetic?
posted by arcticwoman at 11:13 AM on June 19, 2007


Obesity is an untreatable condition, we just haven't faced that reality yet..
posted by docpops at 11:15 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


Maybe I need to be sexually enslaved by an athletic vegan dominatrix. Say, oh, 5'6" - 5-10, 125 - 150 pounds, 21-40 years old, with long brown hair, a high IQ, and able to contrast, compare and critique the Fatimids and Trotskyites while stuffing me with celery and carrots. A six-figure net worth and a "winter dungeon" on Maui is also a plus. Applicants respond by email.
posted by davy at 11:16 AM on June 19, 2007


misha: I love designbot too. More than you. But "you can't stay away from food" misses the point. Right. You gotta eat. But you can eat less you take the right steps, and you can lose weight permanently. That's what dieting people seem to want. The analogy to sexual addiction is perhaps more apt than drug addiction: you can't stay away from sex, but--if properly treated--sex doesn't have to screw up your entire life. The point is that "genetic" is a good start for treatment in that it tells you that will-power and short-term fixes will not do the trick. But that knowledge doesn't really do you any good unless you treat it as you would any other addiction.
posted by MarshallPoe at 11:19 AM on June 19, 2007


There's a scene in Desk Set which is fascinating. (I'm sure there are similar scenes in a lot of movies, but the one in Desk Set has always struck me.) Hep and Spence are meeting for lunch, he's gotten the lunch at a deli, and he takes out of the bag two tiny sandwiches. The bread squares are small, there doesn't appear to be any filling, and that's it, that's lunch: nothing overstuffed, no chips, no dessert, just two small pieces of bread and a thin piece of meat. The movie was made in 1957.
posted by OmieWise at 11:21 AM on June 19, 2007


There's no question in my mind that there's a significant genetic component to obesity, but it's also clear that environment plays a role.

If you think about it, the genetic propensity towards being fat is, from an evolutionary perspective, a desirable trait. When food was scarce and hard-won, a person who was more efficient at storing that food as fat -- rather than someone who's metabolism just burned the excess calories -- had a survival advantage during famine conditions. We know now that being thinner has long term survival advantages, but over the short term when the average lifespan of a person was 30 years old, malnutrition and starvation was a much more likely cause of death than heart attacks or strokes.

To those who criticize fat people for lack of self-control, I have a simple exercise for you. Try not eating or drinking anything -- and I mean anything-- for two days. That's what a significantly calorie restricted diet feels like to someone who obese.

Now, imagine trying to live the rest of your life where you could only drink one 8 oz. glass of water a day. While it may be possible to survive for a period of time in a severly dehydrated state, what would the quality of your life be like? How would you like to live where every waking thought was about how thirsty you are, and how you need that glass of water? That's what you're saying that obese people should be effectively required to do. Deprive themselves to the extent where they are constantly in a state of extreme hunger.

Diet control and exercise are simply not long-term solutions for the vast majority of people. And yet, the medical industry keeps going down this path, as if it's simply a matter of willpower. The solution to the problem would seem to be in neuroscience. They have to figure out how to "short circuit" that hunger impulse. Not so much so the person doesn't eat at all, but some method that allows a person to reduce their caloric intake without causing the body to feel like its in a constant state of starvation.
posted by mstefan at 11:25 AM on June 19, 2007 [5 favorites]


Try not eating or drinking anything -- and I mean anything-- for two days. That's what a significantly calorie restricted diet feels like to someone who obese.

This is just not true. I'm not sure what hyperbole is supposed to accomplish here, especially when no one has been arguing that fat folks just don't have enough self-control, but this kind of thing seems to me to be incredibly condescending to all involved. More to the point, the use of universals in these situations seem as likely to fail to describe any specific situation, and discourage people to try to control their weight, as they are to be accurate.
posted by OmieWise at 11:34 AM on June 19, 2007


"you can't stay away from sex"

Sure you can. It's easy if you're chubby, ugly, old, poor, lazy and blessed with exceptionally high standards; e.g., I'm so picky I wouldn't even do me.
posted by davy at 11:34 AM on June 19, 2007


"The solution to the problem would seem to be in neuroscience. They have to figure out how to 'short circuit' that hunger impulse."

We already have that.
posted by davy at 11:39 AM on June 19, 2007


In Africa and some other areas of poverty, the people are more often than not overly thin; in the developed nations, they tend increasingly to be overweight. Must be we have the fat genes and others have not. Problem though: in the 20s and 30s, most Americans were thin unless they were portly because they ate well and had lots of money and did not do any physical work.
posted by Postroad at 11:46 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


Losing & maintaining weight is largely just controlling your arm muscles.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:48 AM on June 19, 2007


That's what a significantly calorie restricted diet feels like to someone who obese.

I'm "obese" now . . . 30.8 BMI . . . I've been on a 1000kcal deficit diet for two weeks now to get back where I was last year.

No hunger. Same food I always eat, just smaller portions, more often, and no calorie-dense stuff that blows the calorie budget.

It's easy to lose 2lbs per week if you cut 500kcal of intake and add 500kcal of exercise.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:51 AM on June 19, 2007


I am not obese, but I always thought that telling someone to "just eat less" would be like telling someone depressed to "just lighten up". There are lifestyle changes that both populations can make to improve things, but it's not as simple as simply wanting to change.

I mean, when I am hungry, I eat. I can easily imagine that if I were hungry more often--prompting me to consume more calories than I burn--I would then start gaining weight.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 11:52 AM on June 19, 2007


This is just not true... but this kind of thing seems to me to be incredibly condescending to all involved.

I'm not talking about people who are simply overweight by 10 or 20 pounds. There's a real difference between those who just overindulge and have a "spare tire", and those who are clinically obese and significantly over the average weight for a person their height. And unless you yourself are obese (or have been), then its safe to say you most decidedly have no idea what you're talking about.

We already have that.

Okay, let me rephrase. Something that short circuits the hunger impluse, without the use of addictive drugs that have serious, negative long-term side-effects of their own.
posted by mstefan at 11:52 AM on June 19, 2007


The Contribution of Expanding Portion Sizes to the US Obesity Epidemic
. . .
In the mid-1950s, McDonald's offered only 1 size of french fries; that size is now considered "Small" and is one third the weight of the largest size available in 2001. Today's "Large" weighs the same as the 1998 "Supersize," and the 2001 "Supersize" weighs nearly an ounce more. Since 1999, a McDonald's "Supersize" soda is nearly one third larger than the "Large."

Notably, the sizes of chain fast-food portions in Europe are smaller than those in the United States. McDonald's "Extra Large" soda portions in London, Rome, and Dublin weigh the same as the US "Large." In 1998–1999, the largest order of french fries in the United States contained 610 calories, whereas the largest size in the United Kingdom contained 446 calories.
. . .
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:58 AM on June 19, 2007


I think the better question is why is the UK the fattest country in the EU? The answer can only be one thing: the influence of American culture and fast (read: takeaway) food.

I went out the other night to do something I've never done before: I went to the chippy to get dinner for my family. In the 30 minutes I was there waiting (it was the Saturday night rush), I saw the most morbidly obese people I've encountered since moving to this crusty old island in 2005. They eat this shit every night, I thought... then I went home and made pasta from scratch. "It was just too busy," I told my family...
posted by chuckdarwin at 11:59 AM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


And unless you yourself are obese (or have been), then its safe to say you most decidedly have no idea what you're talking about.

Oh, I didn't realize that the argument from anecdote was the only one allowed here.

In that case, let me reassure you that you're still full of condescending shit. My BMI was ~37.5 for many years. It has now been ~26 for many years. At no point while I was losing weight (sometimes on pretty restricted diets, sometimes with lots and lots of exercise) over several years did I feel like I was starving. I certainly never felt as if I'd been on a two day fast. There are tons of sites on the internet that have more detailed stories to share with similar BMI numbers.

But that's precisely my point, your universal hyperbolic stricture, based, one assumes, on your experience, fails to adequately describe or account for all experiences, while suggesting that it would be foolish for a fat person to try to lose weight.
posted by OmieWise at 12:03 PM on June 19, 2007 [4 favorites]


I think the truth is something like:

1. People have different degrees of genetic predisposition to put on weight easily or not;

2. Our prepared food portions are larger, cheaper, and more calorie-dense than they were in the past (easily verified). Americans take in 200 more calories per day, on average, than we did 20 years ago.

3. Our lives grow increasingly more sedentary by the year with each added 'convenience' we bestow on ourselves (drive throughs, ATMs outside the bank, home entertainment rather than going out or a walk around the block...). We're physically lazy. I've read lots of studies about the average number of steps people walked per day in the past vs. today, and it's pretty shocking. Here's a study comparing the Amish, who take more than 18,000 steps per day, with modern American desk-job workers, who average only 5,000. The Amish also still do home labor manually - shoveling, raking, mowing, laundry, cleaning - rather than let it go or farm it out to a service. All that qualifies as moderate exercise. A few generations ago, everyone but the rich walked a lot and did more physical labor.

So, surfeit of calories + a lifestyle that burns fewer of them + genetics (maybe) = easy weight gain.

I'm all for the scientific study of obesity, but I must say that a focus on the individual, whether on his or her DNA or snacking habits, obscures the greater community public health issues of food additives, push from advertisers, expanding portion sizes, and the level of physical activity we design into our cities and buildings.
posted by Miko at 12:04 PM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


So why are people in the US getting fatter?

Have you tried eating low-fat yogurt?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:06 PM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


"I think the solution is well known. Getting people to do it is the problem."

Then it isn't much of a solution. If it doesn't work how can it be a good solution? That is the problem with this debate. We can say it's as easy as cutting X number of intake and getting Y number of exercise. But IT DOESN'T work for the majority of people and won't anytime in the future.
posted by UseyurBrain at 12:07 PM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't mean to go all touting my geek credentials, but damn I'm going for it. See at the end there's the statement

Correction: May 12, 2007

An article in Science Times on Tuesday about the role of genes in weight gain misstated the publication date for an article in the journal Science describing the biological controls over body weight. The article was published in 2003, not 2000.


Yeah, that was totally all me. I wanted to read the article but couldn't find any from 2000 published by Friedman so I asked her for the citation. I'm not saying that I'm awesome or anything, but I'm kinda awesome.
posted by jourman2 at 12:22 PM on June 19, 2007


Now I'm wondering why my BMI is under 30.
posted by davy at 12:56 PM on June 19, 2007


Miko wins.

We used to have to be physical. Now we don't. It's that simple. This supposed sudden appearance of a Fat Gene is bullshit. All animals are designed to crave dense calories and conserve them when ever possible. So some individuals do it to greater or lesser degree. Wow. Shocking.

But IT DOESN'T work for the majority of people and won't anytime in the future.

Jeeze. It DOES work for the majority of people and has since humans evolved. You burn more calories then you take in you you don't get fat. The only difference is now we have a choice in the matter. You can choose "the solution" or not. But the solution works.

If I didn't exercise I would be fat.
posted by tkchrist at 12:56 PM on June 19, 2007


serazin writes "Didn't take it as a snark citrus."

Man, I had a snark citrus for the first time in years last night. Delicious!
posted by krinklyfig at 1:01 PM on June 19, 2007


"Jeeze. It DOES work for the majority of people and has since humans evolved. You burn more calories then you take in you you don't get fat. The only difference is now we have a choice in the matter. You can choose "the solution" or not. But the solution works."

That is my point. We are not forced to farm or hunt and gather now, we eat out and work all the time in offices, and so that solution DOESN'T WORK for most people. A majority of society is 'choosing' not take in more than they exercise out. Society has spoken.
posted by UseyurBrain at 1:03 PM on June 19, 2007


The thing is, fat people are constantly on the look out for anything that validates their rampant gluttony.

It's almost as frightening the last vat of potato salad at the Sizzler, but excess calories is what leads to fat. Genetics simply determines one's largess.
posted by four panels at 1:20 PM on June 19, 2007


Marshallpoe, I meant I loved designbot's comment. I'm not, like, stalking him (her?) or anything.

I do think that people are less active than we should be nowadays, and portions are too big. But I think, too, that the weight charts you see posted all the time are ridiculous.

When I was a teenager, and in my twenties, I thought the weight range for an appropriate weight was way too high--I barely made it at the bottom of the range for my weight (5' 9" and 135). Granted, I was thin, but I was never anorexic. After having my kids, I came back down to my ideal weight with no problem.

Once I went through surgical menopause and the almost immediate slow-down of my metabolism, I was happy to fit in the high end of the appropriate weight range. I consume less calories than I did but I burn them at a slower rate now that my metabolism has slowed down.

I've adapted, of course, but I think that "2000 calories" a day and the corresponding charts for weight are very one-dimensional and don't reflect the way an average person's weight changes during the course of his/her life.
posted by misha at 1:20 PM on June 19, 2007


Once again, this post demonstrates that one of the last acceptable prejudices as to who people are and what their worth is, is fatphobia.

I guess there is social utility and satisfaction in getting to judge other people as morally inferior and label others as ugly and disgusting. So despite the evidence all around us, people can't see/countenance the idea that genetics could play any role in fatness, because that would mean their hatred was more cruel, since people don't choose their parents.
posted by hmaroon at 1:21 PM on June 19, 2007


Er, I mean this thread, not this post...
posted by hmaroon at 1:22 PM on June 19, 2007


I should change that to "came back to my ideal weight with no problem through plenty of exercise and a healthy diet." I don't mean to imply it's the easiest thing in the world.
posted by misha at 1:23 PM on June 19, 2007


I can easily imagine that if I were hungry more often--prompting me to consume more calories than I burn--I would then start gaining weight.

The association with hunger and actual deprivation is fallacious IME. Eating these days is more an emotional need than physical thing.

Over the past year I wanted that 5lb vat of cookie dough from CostCo, the 3-pack of Ben Jerry's cones, the non-diet cokes with my Arby's, the handful of Oreos with my daily espresso at work.

For the past year I was apparently content trading the emotional enjoyment of the above for an expanding waistline. But for the next few months I've got to take a pass on these enjoyable things so my system can get back into a healthier balance.

I fully allow that for the morbidly obese things might be different, but seeing what the morbidly obese throw in their shopping carts, I kinda doubt it.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:35 PM on June 19, 2007


This is a news story from a 5 weeks ago. How is it "best of the web"?
posted by modernnomad at 1:38 PM on June 19, 2007


A majority of society is 'choosing' not take in more than they exercise out. Society has spoken.

Yeah. I guess we should all get surgery or wait for a pill to come out.
posted by tkchrist at 1:41 PM on June 19, 2007


Could one satisfy the hunger cravings through large amounts of celery?

People (animals) tend to eat to a set amount of food energy, based on metabolism. So, the answer is no.

What these studies say to me is that metabolism causes people to crave enough calories to end up with a weight within a certain range. These studies do not say that genetics alone is what determines metabolic rate. Body type, body condition, amount of excercise and other factors probably help determine metabolic rate.

I have no evidence to prove this theory, but I think that the major reason Americans are gaining weight is that they stay up too late and eat too close to their time for sleep, when the calories have no place to go but into storage.
posted by zennie at 1:41 PM on June 19, 2007


So despite the evidence all around us

What evidence is that?
posted by OmieWise at 1:43 PM on June 19, 2007


designbot wins!

Speaking as a european living in a small country (less than 5 million in population), we import a lot of our entertainment from the US and the UK.

From watching eating- and shopping scenes in the current slew of reality shows it is a stark and striking contrast when it comes to portion sizes and the availability of junk food.

The reason, I suppose, americans are generally larger than the rest of the world can be put down to something as simple as the sheer availability of calories.

By now, of course, it is far too late to reduce servings to any meaningful degree. If we had the same food culture and availability here, we would probably see the same obesity.
posted by flippant at 1:59 PM on June 19, 2007


I have no idea what my BMI is, which is probably the smart way to live.
posted by jonmc at 2:00 PM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


I am confused.

I am perfectly willing to accept that base metabolic rate is largely inherited. That makes some degree of sense. But I was under the impression that it was fairly well known that dieting alone won't help - and the article seems to support this - as the body goes into a kind of starvation mode, and takes any subsequent increase in caloric intake as an opportunity to store against similar future starvation. Why is this a shocking new revelation?

The article, on the other hand, conflates dieting with 'diet and exercise' Exercise not only increases caloric usage in the here and now but creates muscle which will more efficiently process future calories - in other words, if you lose weight by expending more calories than you ingest rather than drastically reducing them, you avoid the starvation response, and provide yourself with a 'buffer zone' (buffer - get it? Hurf durf) to prevent future weight gain.

Did I miss something?
posted by Sparx at 2:01 PM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


hmaroon, certainly in some circles there is a prejudice against fat. For the rest, especially the medical community, there is just despair, fear, and frustration, as the obese continue to demand and expect solutions that don't exist in lieu of rigorous, constant vigilance toward dietary habits and exercise as they raise the next generation of super-obese children.

The success rate for meaningful weight loss in morbidly obese persons is abysmal, but the myriad direct and indirect consequences of obesity we see are rampant. Most of my patients with abdominal pain can't be examined normally, can't get accurate ultrasounds, and thus need automatic CT scans, with their attendant radiation risks and costs, to discern simple harmless gas pains or ovarian cysts from ruptured appendices.

The issue of obesity is one we had better become comfortable with - it will not trend downward until something apocalyptic removes readily available sources of processed food from our reach and forces us to become more active.

And the prejudice won't end either. It will simply shift from normal v. obese to 'notfatenoughtoseemgrotesque' v. 'thereisn'tascaleinventedyetthatcanweighme'.
posted by docpops at 2:03 PM on June 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


I have no evidence to prove this theory, but I think that the major reason Americans are gaining weight is that they stay up too late and eat too close to their time for sleep, when the calories have no place to go but into storage.

Some people are fat because they're born that way.

Others are fat because they eat the wrong foods and don't exercise. This is the American disease. Don't worry—it's spread to Europe too.

The bad-eating fatties are lucky because they can make a relatively easy lifestyle change and return to their default state of slim.

if you're born fat, then diets don't work. No amount of lifestyle changes are going to help you in the long run. Fat is always waiting in the shadows with a baseball bat. You're left floating in a sea of helplessness, your only hope being that plague and famine come along so that being fat once against becomes fashionable.
posted by humblepigeon at 2:06 PM on June 19, 2007


Strange question maybe someone can answer: Has there ever been a study done on the caloric content of fully digested and excreted food (feces) and that corresponded to the weight of the excreters?

I have a theory that while a lot of skinny people may burn calories quicker than fat people, that's not the whole story and that overweight people have more efficient digestions.
posted by Kickstart70 at 2:10 PM on June 19, 2007


it will not trend downward until something apocalyptic removes readily available sources of processed food from our reach and forces us to become more active

At last a solution that removes the middle man! Fat Apocalypse!

Sell you gym memberships and buy a gross of pork rinds sit back and wait for the third horseman... famine. There ain't nothing else you can do. Societies fat genes have spoken!
posted by tkchrist at 2:10 PM on June 19, 2007


I remember reading somewhere a few years ago that when your body is telling you that you are hungry, it is actually telling you that you need to consume nutrients and not calories. If the food you're eating isn't nutritious you can eat a whole lot of it and still feel hungry. The implication being that a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables as well as meat, dairy, and breads will fill you up more than a big mac and large fries from McDonalds. And it's true. People don't eat as much produce these days, and the proliferation of fast food places with limited menus eliminates a lot of variety from peoples' diets. We all get hungry each day. It's how we choose to fill ourselves up (as well as our excercise habits) that determines our weight. I don't count calories or obsessively diet. I actually eat quite a bit, but I try to eat a wide range of foods of different flavors, textures, and colors. Along with a moderate excercise regimen, I've managed to lose a good deal of weight pretty steadily over the last few years.
posted by SBMike at 2:21 PM on June 19, 2007


No amount of lifestyle changes are going to help you in the long run.

I know you said in the long run, but it's worth pointing out that the studies make no claims whatsoever to the effect of exercise on genetic predisposition to hunger below a certain weight, nor are they 100% conclusive that weight is the only factor. they make a very strong case that weight affects hunger differently in different people, but it does not rule out exercise combined with sufficient caloric intake for a more comfortable weight loss. what you've said exhibits a kind of fatalism that is at least premature and may prove to be totally unnecessary.
posted by shmegegge at 2:36 PM on June 19, 2007


I have nothing to back this up with, but I've always believed that the more muscle you have, the less "efficient" the body is -- makes intuitive sense, anyhow, that a pound of muscle burns more calories than a pound of fat (or bone, for that matter) in any given activity, from walking/running to sleeping or watching TV. So if you maintain a decent musculature, you'll have an easier time keeping off excess fat, because your body is burning more calories all the time.

I really have no idea what physiologically constitutes a "high metabolism" vs. "low metabolism", but I suspect it has something to do with this muscle/non-muscle ratio. I understand "high" means a person can eat more calories for a given weight, but why? What are the mechanisms? That energy has to go somewhere!

Disconnected thought: while similarly prosperous, Europeans are way more likely than Americans to use bicycles as transportation. The high price of gas & vehicles makes biking or walking much more attractive than it is in the 'States. The pre-automobile city planning makes it viable. (Think Chicago vs. L.A.)

I would have thought that, because of the viability of people-powered-transportation, urban obesity rates would be lower than rural, but this appears to not be the case. Hrm.
posted by LordSludge at 3:37 PM on June 19, 2007


Based on my extremely limited understanding of natural selection, here is my theory on why people in the US are so much heavier than they used to be (allowing for nutrition to be a factor, too).

In a society that is based on physical labor and in which there is a lot of poverty and poor health care, people who are very obese are less likely to live to procreate. They will die before having much of a chance, or their obesity will make them completely unattractive to potential mates because in their physical labor-based society they are not able to accumulate wealth.

In the wealthy US, better health care allows obese people to live longer. Jobs which don't require physical movement can pay very, very well. Obese people can live longer, and they can accumulate wealth. As such, they are more likely to procreate than in a poor, physical-labor-based country. Therefore, obese people in the US are more likely to have children than they were previously.
posted by flarbuse at 3:49 PM on June 19, 2007


There have been a lot of interesting comments so far. Very few were supported by any scientific references (above comment excepted), although almost everyone posting here seems very convinced of their points of view.

And just out of curiosity, if you commented here, did you actually read the NY Times article that was linked?
posted by serazin at 3:52 PM on June 19, 2007


And just out of curiosity, if you commented here, did you actually read the NY Times article that was linked?

I did. I was underwhelmed.
posted by tkchrist at 4:21 PM on June 19, 2007



I would have thought that, because of the viability of people-powered-transportation, urban obesity rates would be lower than rural, but this appears to not be the case. Hrm.


Interesting link. Depends on the city and the region. Many west coast cities tend to be thinner than Midwest and southern cities.

At first it may be tempting to lay this on climate. But not so. Going from Vancouver to Seattle, for instance, you see way fewer obese people in Vancouver. Then going from Seattle to Spokane you see a huge leap in the number of obese people in Spokane. Then go to southeast to Huston. I think Huston is still close to the obesity capitol of the US. One startling shift is between Park City Utah and Salk Lake. These cities are not 20 miles apart and it is night and day as far as culture and the size humans you see.
posted by tkchrist at 4:30 PM on June 19, 2007


Many west coast cities tend to be thinner than Midwest and southern cities.

but that's just because of cocaine.
posted by jonmc at 4:53 PM on June 19, 2007


Miko said all that needed to be said upthread. You're genetics haven't changed in the last 100 years. You're getting fatter cause you're sitting around more and eating worse food

Yes, there is a fair sized genetic contribution to some people being fat, but that is not why the US is getting fatter. Genetics haven't changed in the last 100 years. It is because of larger portions, fattier food, and sedentary life. People who used to work with their hands all day outside now work inside at a desk and drive everywhere while still consuming the same calories.

Eat healthy food and work out regularly. It's that simple.

why are there no fat people in nyc?

It's completely the walking. Fresh out of college I took a nice job in the suburbs and drove everywhere. Within two months I had a gut I had to get rid of by running 3-4 times a week. In new york I do it maybe once or twice a week as I'm walking 10-20 blocks a day just to run errands
posted by slapshot57 at 6:44 PM on June 19, 2007


Certainly one's actual food choices make a difference. I'll wager the only people who can truly remain overweight on a well-balanced diet of unprocessed foods are those who really are genetically predisposed.

More veggies, fruit, and grains; less meat, sugar, and fat. Not that difficult and a whole helluva lot better.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:12 PM on June 19, 2007


Again, slapshot57 and five fresh fish, you both seem completely convinced of your theories, however, you have no scientific basis for them.

Gina Kolata, the author of the above article, is a professional science writer who makes a nice living researching and writing about historical and contemporary issues in health. She's also quite thin, so I dont' think she's out to justify her own fatness.
posted by serazin at 7:17 PM on June 19, 2007


On the other hand, when hard times come cannibals will be happy. Until we they get too fat to run in turn.
posted by davy at 7:22 PM on June 19, 2007


I have been obese, with a BMI of 35.8. This is universally the fate of women (and most men) in my family over the age of about 20. There are very very few who are not prone to this.

I lost weight by dieting, as I was having joint problems due to the excess weight I was carrying around. I should point out at this stage, that I was at my most sedentary at that point - only about an hour a day or so of walking with a 20lb or so backpack. So not a lot in the way of exercise.

It was hell on earth. I was hungry all the time. Starving, even. I was eating my fresh vegetables, good quality food, absolutely minimal pre-processed junk - and I starved. 6 months later, I had a healthy BMI. Hooray!

Fast-forward 4 years. I'm back up to a bmi of 28.2. I've caught it earlier this time, and because I was able to do that, I'm tackling it with a combination of diet and exercise. I eat a lot of whole grains, good quality lean meat, fresh vegetables, good quality dairy, that sort of thing. To feel mostly not-hungry, I have to eat about 2200 calories a day or so. To not gain weight, I'm restricted to about 1800 calories a day. To lose weight? Currently I'm sitting around 1500 calories a day, and doing about 5 hours of exercise a week, on top of my daily 45min commute walk. That's netting me somewhat under a lb a week of weightloss. Currently, I'm down to a BMI of 26, having started in February. I want a BMI of about 22, and it's looking a terribly long way away.

And I'm hungry all the damn time.
posted by ysabet at 7:40 PM on June 19, 2007


Here's a happy thought for all those advocating diet and exercise as a guaranteed cure:

Once you get fat, you stay fat. You can slim down, but the recidivism rate for obesity is north of 95%. That's worse than heroin, meth, or crack.

You can put in the time. You can (quite literally) starve yourself thin, take up the treadmill and pretend you like it. You can thrill as you see smaller and smaller numbers on your pants size when you try on new clothes. You can even enjoy it for a while.

But the fat will come back. You can sneer at how easy it is to lose weight, as you're doing it right now... living the life, dropping the pounds, glowing with your glorious act of supreme will. Here's the punchline, though: Unless you're a special little snowflake who's better than 97% of your fellow human beings who also figured out how to diet and exercise, you're going to be fat again.

It's damnably hard for intelligent people to realize that their actions are not in their control, especially for something as conscious as eating a meal or a snack. Yet, the science indicates that if you're fat, your brain is every inch as broken as the guy screaming at invisible bugs on the subway. Your actions are no longer tied to your will, so talk of willpower is pointless. You can (and should) try to keep it in check, but it will be a long, slow, miserable battle biochemistry has decreed you will lose.

Here's another cheery thought: they can give you pills so you stop screaming at invisible bugs, but none that will stop you from ordering that triple-cheese enchilada and draft beer when you originally just wanted a chicken ceasar salad and a diet coke. You're crazy, and the crazy makes you sick, and the sickness makes you even crazier, and the fine, fit men think if they tell you you're lazy and need motivation, they won't need to work on a course of treatment.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:10 PM on June 19, 2007 [5 favorites]


what sister of judy bari what what what - borne out, btw, but still what what what

I have enjoyed much of Kolata's stuff in the past (Flu comes to mind).
posted by mwhybark at 11:36 PM on June 19, 2007


The Truth About Food
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:13 AM on June 20, 2007


It seems to me that this is unsurprising from an evolutionary perspective; for the overwhelming majority of human evolution, people's weight would have been limited by the amount of energy needed to obtain food, so there will have been very little selection acting on genes which control a person's "steady state" weight. Similar to how there was probably very little selection on genes which predisposed people to disease in old age, since people rarely lived that long and would be unlikely to reproduce at an advanced age. One could say that limited food availability "hid" the genes in question from natural selection, and it's only now, with practically unlimited food availability, that we're seeing the huge variation in steady state weight that has, in fact, been there all along.
posted by primer_dimer at 3:28 AM on June 20, 2007


She's also quite thin, so I dont' think she's out to justify her own fatness.

She also wrote a book about exercise in which she made clear that she exercises at high intensity several times a week. In fact, she mocked people who exercise at low intensity, especially if they want weight control. In an interview she said that one of her reasons for writing this book was all of the negative feedback she got from overweight people who had tried to lose weight but had difficulty. So I'm not sure her personal motivations are really adequate to either accept or dismiss her arguments. (Nor should they be, of course.)

they can give you pills so you stop screaming at invisible bugs, but none that will stop you from ordering that triple-cheese enchilada and draft beer when you originally just wanted a chicken ceasar salad and a diet coke.

This is just a ridiculous assertion. You seem to be suggesting that there is no personal choice involved in what one orders in a restaurant if one's BMI is (has ever been?) above a certain level. Are you serious?
posted by OmieWise at 4:18 AM on June 20, 2007


I remember reading somewhere a few years ago that when your body is telling you that you are hungry, it is actually telling you that you need to consume nutrients and not calories. If the food you're eating isn't nutritious you can eat a whole lot of it and still feel hungry.

Personally, I think this is a significant factor. The effect of genetics over the larger population of the US is questionable since there's enormous variation. And the effects of "sedentary lifestyles" is also questionable since it's not like most Americans in the fifties were slaving away on farms or walking ten miles each day to get their job and it's certainly not the case that most Europeans are doing so today.

But what is clear (at least to me) is that Americans from East to West eat food that is simply terrible. It's bland, tasteless, unspiced, greasy, heavily processed crap that can't be considered nutritious at all beyond the fact that it provides basic calories. It's really quite shocking just how awful the food in America is compared to elsewhere. And eating horrible food is considered normal. I think this is partly because America has never had a real cultural cuisine. There's never been any common guidelines of what, why, when, and how to eat. And now, really only very recently, this gaping hole has been deftly filled by television and marketers such that now American "cuisine" is equated with fast (and terrible) food: hot dogs, burgers, and Twinkies.

In the wealthy US, better health care allows obese people to live longer. Jobs which don't require physical movement can pay very, very well. Obese people can live longer, and they can accumulate wealth.

Not really. The richest people with the best healthcare tend to be not obese. Particularly in American cities you often see an inverse relationship between wealth and weight.

It's damnably hard for intelligent people to realize that their actions are not in their control, especially for something as conscious as eating a meal or a snack.

There's a large class of problems for which there is no procedural solution. For such problems there is no simple, "1-2-3" solution because any such solution will eventually degrade in the face of larger structural flaws. But such problems are not unsolvable, they just require structural improvements that are far harder to devise and implement. I'd agree that diet -- which is almost certainly not a consequence of rational or conscious thought but is more constituted by genetics, habit and culture -- is such a problem. You're right that people are literally not in control of what they eat and simple formulas like "diet and exercise" are not a viable solution.

But even if people tend to make bad choices you can still restrict their options so that even the worst choices are minimally bad. Concerning diet, environmental changes, which can involve anything from changing what stores you shop at to how much money and time you have available to prepare food, can and do go a long way towards determining your weight. So yes, while people are not in control of themselves this doesn't mean they are totally helpless and without hope in the face of obesity.

Any solution to the obesity epidemic in the US -- short of some miraculous medical solution -- would require major cultural and structural changes such people would not be required to make optimal choices but could freely make "not bad" choices.

Of course this won't ever happen. There's too much money to be made pumping kids full of sugar, salt and corn and the government is far too weak and well-paid to ever step up and make the hard decisions about America's diet. The obesity epidemic will just continue until, after a decade or two, it becomes the normal state of affairs.
posted by nixerman at 5:45 AM on June 20, 2007


So why are people in the US getting fatter?
Easy access to more calories.


Noted. Is it just me, or is there a peculiarity to modern American fat? I mean, there seems a kind of symmetric, human solidity to old time fat such as one still sees in Europe and elsewhere. I'm not talking about excess beeer gut, which you do find all over, alas, but rather the unnatural looking loosely filled sack-like bodies almost as wide as tall. You don't see such fat in old pictures (at least as far as I can recall), but it shows up now rather frequently.

It dismays me in my more generous moods, and I have to think it's more than just calories. There is something unnatural going on here. Has anyone ever done a study of what exactly is being eaten? (Besides the Fast Food Nations of this world?)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:47 AM on June 20, 2007


The unreal recidivism rate, especially in light of the obvious and pervasive social stigma that comes along with backsliding into hippo-land, indicates that personal choice will be weighted unfairly by biology.

You don't seriously subscribe to the notion that the brain is some sort of perfect machine of reason, do you? Your every choice made with the cold, clear precision of logic, and not a stray hormone to sully the analytical affair with its biological messiness?

Behavior is endocrinology. There is no secret "you" pulling levers to make the meat-machine work... it's an amazingly complex chemical soup that makes you do what you do. Sometimes the soup don't work right in very subtle ways... and the recidivism numbers do not lie. If Fattie Fannie had a real choice between the big-mac and a body like Beyonce's, what do you think she would choose? She'd be crazy not to go for the hot bod and the good health.

And that's the whole point.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:53 AM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Behavior is endocrinology. ... it's an amazingly complex chemical soup that makes you do what you do... If Fattie Fannie had a real choice between the big-mac and a body like Beyonce's, what do you think she would choose?

I disagree. I'm not suggesting it's easy, or that it's not complex, but I do think it's possible. The problem with the endocrinology argument is that while it appears to make the issue more complex, it's ultimately reductive and simplifying, but in a way that takes the humanity out of human choice. Of course brain processes are chemical, of course mind processes are inadequate when reduced to responses to those stimuli. There's just too much evidence that our choices can affect our chemistry as much as vice versa. To arbitrarily choose one is to fail to adequately account for the evidence we have.

This is why my first question in this thread was "Why are Americans getting fatter?" Any explanation of obesity in the aggregate has to account for this fact. There are various ways to account for it, but we can't ignore it just because it doesn't suit the notion that it's a biological problem over which people have such radically limited control that in effect they have no "real choice." People like Ian Hacking, for instance, argue persuasively that there is no current epidemic of autism, just a more nuanced and definite set of diagnostic criteria. It's hard to make such an argument about obesity, to my understanding.

As to choice and recidivism: I think it ignores the balance of human history to suggest that because a problem exists and is difficult to address, it's biologically close to impossible to address it. There are as many reasons to overeat as there are people, and the choice is really never between looking like Beyonce and being fat. The choice is almost always both more mundane and more nuanced than that. It's a choice between a good taste versus deprivation. It's a choice between comfort and effort. It's a choice between admitting there's a problem and embracing the status quo. It's a choice between feeling emotionally empty and feeling full. It's a choice between remembering the love of your dead mother and forgetting her. It's a choice between assuring yourself controlled rejection and facing the possibility of someone else rejecting you. I'm certainly not trying to make that choice for anybody, nor am I demeaning either choice. They're very very personal.

It isn't that I think any of those choices are easy or that they can be consistently made by most people, but I think the reduction of the problem to one of biology actually serves to denigrate our complex humanities. It's pessimistic and it's unfortunate; it savors of defeatism and triumphalism at the same time, which is quite a feat. The recidivism rate for many things is quite high: heroin use, cigarette smoking, narcotics distribution, but these things are recognized as complex social and personal problems, some of which may have biological components. No one says to a heroin addict seeking treatment: "your problem is biological so you have no choice but to use." The biological part of the problem is acknowledged and discussed, but the choice to use or not to use, the reasons for making that choice, the things in life that might be more important than using, those are all the things that are most focussed on during treatment. Because, ultimately, even if relapse is high, people kick heroin every day and stay clean for the rest of their lives, and every addict has the right to be given the choice about whether or not they want to try to be one of those people.
posted by OmieWise at 6:18 AM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


You're still living in a fantasyland where you can judge moral character by the waistline. I hate to harp on it, but I must - the recidivism rate is worse than heroin and tobacco. If you look at obesity as food-addiction, which you really have to, the deck is stacked deeper against you than substances known to damage neurochemistry to the point of dependence, like coke and oxycontin. You can't shake that big a monkey off your back with "lifestyle choices" if you're an average human being, and buddy, we're all average when it comes to this. 3% is a margin of error, not a population. Fat people who become thin and stay thin are statistical anomalies, not success stories.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:25 AM on June 20, 2007


You're still living in a fantasyland where you can judge moral character by the waistline.

I'm not living in that fantasy land. I'm not making any moral judgments at all.

Despite your insistence that it's all biology, you haven't explained why people in the US are getting fatter. Has the biology changed or the lifestyle?
posted by OmieWise at 7:36 AM on June 20, 2007


The biological part of the problem is acknowledged and discussed, but the choice to use or not to use, the reasons for making that choice, the things in life that might be more important than using, those are all the things that are most focussed on during treatment

That's true and I agree with the general statements OmieWise is making - but also want to continue to include the larger systems in the discussion, systems which have not much to do with biology. The example of heroin is a good one to illustrate that side of it, as well. Society has put mechanisms into place to reduce or help to prevent heroin use, including education and prevention programs, prohibition on its use and sale, legal consquences for violating the prohibitions, and so on. Where the trend toward obesity is concerned, I do believe that individual responsibility can result in the end of individual obesity, but I also believe that as a society, we can reduce the overall occurence of obesity across the population by making changes in the food supply, in education, in law, and in planning and design to make better choices as abundant and as easy to make as poor choices.
posted by Miko at 7:45 AM on June 20, 2007


serazin

Science writer does not equal expert. Like her I also have science degrees from fancy institutions and am able to read the primary literature and make my own decisions. Also, I have an extensive background in how metabolism works in cells and how hunger is controlled in the brain. That said, it's obvious that genetics have not changed in the last 100 years and that something else must be playing a large role in why people are getting fat. You cannot rebut my argument by simply saying "But she writes about science....".

Behavior is endocrinology. ... it's an amazingly complex chemical soup that makes you do what you do... If Fattie Fannie had a real choice between the big-mac and a body like Beyonce's, what do you think she would choose?

This is absurd, you're essentially saying we have no free will and that we as people are at the best form we could possibly be in so why bother? Beyonce has that body partly because of genetics and partly because she has a nutritionist who strictly controls what she eats and a physical trainer who kicks her ass 7 days a week.

And it's not a judgement call to point out that the people who are over weight are likely that way because they are not eating as well as they should be and going to the gym often enough. They prioritize different things, but don't try to say that it's all genetics and there's nothing you can do about it.
posted by slapshot57 at 8:46 AM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm sure there is some kind of genetic predisposition to be fat in certain sectors of the populace. But the obesity rate has doubled in the last 20 years. To acheive that, you'd need some kind of agressive genetic mutation on the scale of the X-Men (mmm...wolverine using his claws to pick up gelatinous globs of fat and wolfing them down), if you wanted to chalk it up to genetics. Oh, and that fast a mutation has never been seen before in nature. Ever.

I read the article, and the doctor put people on a 600 callorie regimen. 600 calories!! no wonder they're dreaming about food.

We americans ingest half their body weight in sugar on average every year, which is 15 times what they did 150 years ago. They also had no trans fats, etc. They also were way more active.

Our modern conveniences, foods, and lives are driving obesity more aggressively than genetics.
posted by prodigalsun at 8:49 AM on June 20, 2007


I'm noticing a lot of people saying what amounts to "this article proves that my anecdotal evidence is now undeniable fact." no one's biology, causes their brain to think "eat a twinkie." their body cuases them to think "eat. now." and it doesn't stop causing them to think that until they've consumed a certain number of calories, presumably. but getting the same number of calories from a twinkie as you could from [however much healthier food gets you that many calories] is going to be better for you, and if you exercised later in the day that will also be better for you. Does this mean that it's easy for people with this predisposition to lose weight? no. does it mean it's easy for them to keep it off? no. can a life of undisciplined eating and lack of exercise contribute to worsening their weight problems BEYOND the genetic predisposition? yes. are all their lifestyle choices totally out of their control? no. does believing that they ARE out of their control contibute to worsening their weight problems beond the genetic predisposition? yes.

sympathy for people whose lives are made more difficult in ways that are mostly out of their control is one thing. believing that fat is some monster that can't be beaten and makes you eat twinkies and triple decker burger king burgers is entirely another, and not helpful to anyone.
posted by shmegegge at 8:53 AM on June 20, 2007


slapshot57 (and omiewise, and almost everyone else in this thread), I'm not trying to silence you by saying that the author is a science writer and you're not. But I am trying to say that I hear your interesting theories, but they have no obvious basis in any scientific research (whereas the author's piece does).

Slap*Happy isn't saying exactly what I think on the subject, but s/he is at least basing her/his position on research. I've read the studies about how impossible it is to lose weight and keep it off. 95 to 98% of people gain back the weight they loose within three years. Find me a study that says otherwise and I'll listen.
posted by serazin at 9:14 AM on June 20, 2007


serazin-Why is America getting fatter?
posted by OmieWise at 9:25 AM on June 20, 2007


You can find science to back up whatever you want. Just look the anti global warming crowd. You can find science that says we are actually cooling off.

Genetics alone does not explain why obesity rates are climbing.

(speaking as one who has the gottaeatthewholegoddamnbagofchips gene)
posted by prodigalsun at 9:30 AM on June 20, 2007


I think, serazin, that you're not fully understanding what some people are saying here. The article you posted, for instance, is only talking about those people who are born with a genetic predisposition to intense hunger below a certain weight, and is specifically not speaking at all about all overweight people. Further, the effect of exercise and diet on weight is well documented and you shouldn't need us to provide you with studies unless you're trying to claim that exercise and diet has no effect on weight. Further, the the article you posted specifically says that the research shows a difference in metabolic rates both under AND over a small weight range for each person but does not mention what weights those ranges were at and whether or not there was a predictable range for weight or BMI that the metabolism seemed to want to be at. There is, after all, a difference between overweight at 215 pounds and overweight at 300 pounds, especially if someone at 300 pounds has a metabolism that actually prefers to sit at around 215. But we don't know any of the answers to these questions based on the article you posted, so a lot of discussion here is going to be speculation. That said, since you've insisted on research, I'll point to this:

The rapid increase in prevalence of obesity in the United States pediatric population during the last 25 years demonstrates the potent effects of environment on adiposity. Obesity's intractable nature is reflected in the recidivism rate to obesity among formerly-obese. Until recently, the recidivism rate was felt to be as high as 90-95% (14, 15). More recent studies by Hill et al analyzing data from the National Weight Control Registry (16) have reported recidivism rates of 75%

Slap*Happy's figure is indeed based on studies, but he didn't link to it and it turns out that there's reason to dispute the figure. Certainly, 75% is a very high recidivism rate indeed, but it's also much lower than 95%, and doesn't paint nearly the fatalistic picture you seem to insist on endorsing. Further if you google recidivism obesity, the first return among scholar.google.com is a pdf of a study claiming that obesity in america, especially the rise in obesity, is likely the result of many concommitant factors including easy access to fundamentally unhealthy foods and lack of exercise.

So what we have here is that you posted what is generally a good fpp, but which you titled "fat is genetic" when the article doesn't say that. It says that hunger is genetic. We then have people at varying degrees of civility discussing the issue, almost none of them linking to research, although some of it was based on research. In fact, the only research linked to seems to be to an english study about obesity rates in urban areas. What followed was you attempting to shut down all discourse that you deemed wasn't based on research, except the one person you thought you agreed with. You also implied that disputing the article or your interpretation of it was invalid because the article writer is a science writer and "quite thin." without bothering to mention that her biography in published works and advertising campaigns involving her mention her zealous exercise regimen of which she is quite proud and which omiewise already brought up.

So the only person I see in here that is doggedly insisting on a viewpoint that science clearly fails to uphold is you. Fat is not genetic, weight loss is not impossible to maintain and not everyone who is fat is fat for the reasons the article mentions. If you want sympathy for the difficulty that obese people have if they were born with this genetic predisposition for hunger below a certain weight. then you've got it. It's really hard for them. But everything else you've extrapolated from that fact? not so much.

95 to 98% of people gain back the weight they loose within three years. Find me a study that says otherwise and I'll listen.
posted by serazin at 12:14 PM on June 20 [+] [!]


Here's hoping you meant it.
posted by shmegegge at 9:58 AM on June 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


zennie - 'I have no evidence to prove this theory, but I think that the major reason Americans are gaining weight is that they stay up too late and eat too close to their time for sleep, when the calories have no place to go but into storage.'

This is an urban myth.

'for most of us there's nothing wrong with eating at night, as long as the entire day's calorie count is appropriate.'
/mythbusting

One of the expressions that I have found repeated use for over the years is 'vain means pain, darling'. Everybody I know that is fit maintains a sensible diet to exercise balance and exercises at least three times a week, this involves self-control, self-discipline and self-respect to varying degrees. The upside to exercising (and eating well) is endorphin release, which actually makes you feel better.

I also think that we can blame the parents/society to some degree (and not just for IMHO inconsequential genetic differences). When you are young (0-5) you develop a taste for 'normal' foods. If you are presented with food that is nutritionally moribund and high in fat and sugar, you will develop a taste for this kind of food.
posted by asok at 10:08 AM on June 20, 2007


asok: 'for most of us there's nothing wrong with eating at night, as long as the entire day's calorie count is appropriate.'

Yes, but I guess I bungled my point. I think people might stay up late enough to get hungry again at a time when they would normally have been hungry (fasting), but asleep. If they "believe in breakfast" and are eating normally during the day, then the calories taken in before bed will probably be in excess of daily requirements, and will be stored. (I'm probably still wrong... haha.)
posted by zennie at 10:46 AM on June 20, 2007


"So why are people in the US getting fatter?
Easy access to more calories.
"

"Easy access to more calories" is undoubtedly a large part of it. Regardless of why people get fat when they do get enough calories to do so.

As for the argument for genetics, it used to be that a lot of people with the "fat gene" still couldn't get enough calories to get fat and stay fat simply because food was harder to get and most people had to grow their food themselves. (Similarly, a lot of people with very good hearing and perfect pitch couldn't play music because they had no access to musical instruments nor any time to learn to play if they did.) You know, "Life is unfair."

But it also seems to me that there's something else going on these days. Maybe there is an insidious virus going around that slows people's metabolisms and/or makes them feel hungrier; this might also affect the places the body stores fat, accounting for the way today's fat Americans look different from say fat pigs or cattle (see IndigoJones' comment, which come to think of it sounds right to me too).

Or maybe the "guests" from Area 51 really do serve Man.
posted by davy at 12:20 PM on June 20, 2007


I don't think it's a stretch to see a biological basis for trends in obesity, but these trends come about because the environment poses less resistance to the biological tendencies. Historically, the humans who could store energy could better survive periods of physical challenge. Today, very lean humans are still less likely to surive severe injury or prolonged disease. Historically, the humans who had time to rest could store more energy. The notion that it's good to conserve human energy is the basis for most inventions, from wagons and washing machines to escalators and computer machines.

Food and resting time were not always found in such abundance as today in America; there is no strong biological limitation to gaining weight because gaining weight was not a challenge to survival. Americans seem to be living up to a genetic potential not unlike the overgrowth of kudzu, and about as desirable.

But why are Americans getting fatter? How about some wild speculation? :) Maybe all the inactivity fools the body into an energy-conserving state, such that the body is only satisfied until there is a certain level of fat. Maybe the metabolites of processed foods do the same. Maybe parents put too much emphasis on the virtue of clearing your plate. Maybe kids learn to scarf their food because after standing in line to get a school lunch, they only have 10 minutes to eat it. Maybe people don't drink enough water. Maybe there's something in the water. Maybe there's a parasite infecting the brains of Americans and making them eat when they're not hungry. Or maybe it's all of these things, and nature and nurture are not mutually exclusive, no matter how much we'd like them to be for simplicity's sake.
posted by zennie at 12:58 PM on June 20, 2007


Americans seem to be living up to a genetic potential not unlike the overgrowth of kudzu, and about as desirable.

I don't know what I think of your point, yet, but that sentence is a winner.
posted by shmegegge at 1:08 PM on June 20, 2007


I don't think it's a stretch to see a biological basis for trends in obesity, but these trends come about because the environment poses less resistance to the biological tendencies.

Part of my point is that there are HUGE philosophical, personal choice, public health and public policy implications for which of the two clauses you foreground in your sentence. To me it makes no sense to claim that the problem has "a biological basis" if that basis is only expressed in the presence of certain environmental stimuli. If the biological basis was always there, as some sort of biology always was since we're human, then what matters is what's changed, not what's been constant.

Another way to phrase this would be to say that saying that someone has a genetic predisposition to gain weight is a statement so incomplete as to be nonsense. Do they gain weight on a 600 kcal diet? a 1000 kcal diet? a 2000 kcal diet while farming all day long? a 2500 kcal diet while leading a sedentary life? Obviously the statement only makes sense within a context, and, as such, without the context, isn't science, but a value judgment.

Richard Lewontin writes about the problem of how we might choose to frame these sorts of discussions in Biology as Ideology, which does a good job of arguing that foregrounding biology is almost always a political, rather than a scientific, choice.
posted by OmieWise at 1:20 PM on June 20, 2007


I also think that we can blame the parents/society to some degree ... When you are young (0-5) you develop a taste for 'normal' foods. If you are presented with food that is nutritionally moribund and high in fat and sugar, you will develop a taste for this kind of food.

I'm convinced that's about 80% of the current problem. When both parents started working, time to prepare quality meals dropped like a rock; families started purchasing processed foods, eating out, and otherwise filling themselves up with food-that-shit.

And then we cut the physical education programs.

The results are evident: look in any school and you'll see alarming numbers of fat kids. They are virtually doomed to a life of weight problems. Thanks Mom! Thanks Dad!

Survival of the fittest, indeed.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:58 PM on June 20, 2007


c/food-that-shit/food-that-is-shit/.

We need a good word, with the same mouthfeel as "schadenfreude" for food-that-is-shit.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:59 PM on June 20, 2007


To me it makes no sense to claim that the problem has "a biological basis" if that basis is only expressed in the presence of certain environmental stimuli.

You're right that it's almost impossible to solve the problem without knowing what changed. Maybe my background (academic science) gives me a blind spot in this regard, but I don't see the determinism or artifice in looking at the biology.

What I meant by "biological basis" is that there is an underlying system of physiology that informs and limits the problem. Our behaviors and environment may modify the phsyiology, but the physiology is still common to everyone. The constants are useful to know because in order to find the causative variable you want to know what you can rule out. "Separated twin" studies are especially useful in sussing out what is less likely to be a variable, although the ones mentioned in the FPP article aren't useful without knowing the specific context.
posted by zennie at 2:31 PM on June 20, 2007


What I meant by "biological basis" is that there is an underlying system of physiology that informs and limits the problem. Our behaviors and environment may modify the phsyiology, but the physiology is still common to everyone.

Sure. I agree. That seems obvious to me. And of course it's important to understand what those factors are. But what we can say with a fair degree of certainty, especially if we're talking about genetic factors, is that that underlying biology hasn't changed. So when, in the midst of growing numbers of fat people in the US, it doesn't really make very much sense ascribe the problem to those unchanging factors, as important as they might be to understanding the whole picture.
posted by OmieWise at 3:12 PM on June 20, 2007


sheitenfooda
posted by vronsky at 3:14 PM on June 20, 2007


We need a good word, with the same mouthfeel as "schadenfreude" for food-that-is-shit.

actually, I loved food-that-shit as a phrase. I knew exactly what you were saying, and it pleased me. we should just use that.
posted by shmegegge at 3:43 PM on June 20, 2007


Altavista gives us a hint:

nahrung = food, scheisse = shit.

"Scheissenahrung" seems good: shyz-nah-rung.

Maybe. One must remember that I speak German like a fish speaks Swahili.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:01 PM on June 20, 2007


shmegegge -

Thanks for replying with thought and effort.

The article you linked references a number of studies that indicate that:

1) People are getting fatter (this is for you omiewise!) - this seems to be true. I never argued it. I just don't think we have a full understanding of why yet.

2) Fat AND desire to eat have major genetic components. To quote from the article: ...the heritability of body fatness and of body fat distribution in adulthood is 65 to 80%, (approximately equal to the heriiability of height and greater than the heritability of schizophrenia (68%) or breast cancer (45%)) . This statistic is based in part on studies of twins who were seperated at birth, and therefore have seperate and distinct environments. You got it - the amount of body fat a person has (not hunger!) is as heritable as the height that a person will be.

Then, the article goes on to speculate that the current demographics of obesity, and the large increases in the prevalence of obesity over a single decade must reflect major changes in environmental factors. In other words, they look at the facts that fat impacts some demographic groups more than others and that more people are fat now and then assume that fat has an environmental component (which, for the record, I agree with, but which they do not demonstrate conclusively in this article).

And then they go on to recommend a number of strategies for encouraging weight loss in children, even though they state that long-term weight loss is extremely rare. To quote the article: ...the resistance of obesity to current therapies (including a variety of environmental and behavioral manipulations) is reflected in an overall 75-95% reported recidivism rate to obesity among formerly-obese adults and children (14-19). Glad to hear there are some new studies showing a possiblity of a lower 'recidivism' rate (although I know that you know that one newer study does not mean a more accurate study and the study they site with the 75% figure is, unless I'm misreading, footnoted as being this telephone survey of people who have kept weight off for one year (hardly long term) and I couldn't find the 75% number anywhere in the study!), but clearly, if only 25% of people are responding to a therapy, it's not very effective! Imagine if a drug was marketed that had that efficacy!

So, forgive my shorthand link title, and overall title for this FPP. It's metafilter. I didn't want to write an essay (and suffer the flames for doing so). But yes, I do believe that studies indicate that fat has a major genetic component. I also understand from the article I linked that the physiological reaction of a person's body to losing large amounts of weight varies, depending on a person's propensity for, or at least history with being fat, and that when very fat people try to lose weight, their bodies (not their minds) react as if they were starving.
posted by serazin at 9:17 PM on June 20, 2007


Oh, I just figured out the 25% figure for long-term weight loss. One study, done by phone, but still, maybe they're right! Too bad we really can't know without more studies that actually have verified results.
posted by serazin at 9:25 PM on June 20, 2007


Fat AND desire to eat have major genetic components.

Certainly.

Why did this genetic component not factor into our previous 35000 years of existence? How did it become so prevalent in only a select few countries? It seems to work against survival, which makes it a genetic component surprisingly resistant to evolutionary pressures.

It would surprise me were corn-based diet, processed foods, and lack of exercise the root cause of most people's obesity problems. An epidemic outbreak of obesity may have a genetic component, but it's bound to be a non-genetic cause.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:02 PM on June 20, 2007


c/exercise the root/exercise not the root/

[sounds rather old-testament
posted by five fresh fish at 10:04 PM on June 20, 2007


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