God Judging Adam

The Blame for Obesity: Genes, Environment, or Ourselves?

Where shall we place the blame for obesity? This question consumes an extraordinary amount of energy that could go into solving the problem. Most people assume that obesity is a personal problem of bad choices. Many other people call it a community problem caused by unhealthy food and too little opportunity to be active.

In truth, the real problem is with the question. It rolls two different questions into one.

The first question might be: “Why does this person have obesity?” The stock answer – because he made bad choices or lives a bad lifestyle – is simply wrong. Plenty of people make bad choices or live a bad lifestyle and never develop obesity. Plenty of people are very careful about their lifestyle choices and yet cannot shake their obesity.

Overwhelmingly, a person’s individual risk of obesity is inherited. A 2008 study and  commentary found “heritability estimated at 77% and a total (ie, shared and nonshared) environmental effect of <25%.” In other words, genes play the largest role in determining an individual’s body composition.

Potential Contributors to ObesityThe second question is: “Why is the prevalence of obesity so much higher today than it used to be?” The answer to this question is not so simple because so much remains to be learned. The environment plays a role, activating obesity in people who are genetically susceptible.

Many true believers have their favorite presumptions about changes in the environment that might be most responsible for the increased prevalence of obesity. For a list of suspects, the Obesity Society’s infographic on the right is a good place to start.

But the fact is that these factors are simply suspects. Any one of them may play a small role. Some of them may play a large role. Definitive proof is lacking to distinguish one from the other.

Findings from epigenetic research further complicate the picture. That research tells us that environmental factors influence how genes get expressed and passed down to children.

In all of what we know about obesity, one thing is simply and clearly wrong – blaming and shaming an individual for this complex, chronic disease.

Click here for the 2008 study of obesity heritability by Wardle et al. Click here for the companion commentary by Solomon Musani, Stephen Erickson, and David Allison.

God Judging Adam, Etching by William Blake / WikiArt

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September 7, 2016

2 Responses to “The Blame for Obesity: Genes, Environment, or Ourselves?”

  1. September 07, 2016 at 8:48 am, Mary-Jo Overwater said:

    So true, Ted. Thanks for giving these insights. In addition, blaming and shaming is not only wrong, it can actually make things worse for some people who are struggling with their obesity. There are many people really trying to manage their obesity by working very hard at making best choices and keeping their weight and body fat lower than it could be. But, alas, for reasons as you state above, they are still not slim or svelte by other peoples’ standards — people who judge, blame, laugh at, or shame them. The blaming and shaming, etc, can cause people to give up if it makes them feel bad or worthless and they, then, seek comfort in food or withdraw from their normal activities or stop exercising or trying to work at whatever it is they are doing to keep their bodies as fit as possible. It’s destructive. Hopefully, as we work to elucidate the facts and more people gain understanding, blaming and shaming will diminish.

  2. September 07, 2016 at 9:57 am, Stephen Phillips said:

    .The only animal on earth that intentionally tries to make itself smaller is the one that looks back at you the mirror each morning.
    In fact when you see an animal in the wild losing weight and getting smaller the end is usually near
    We seem to be naturally wired to resist getting smaller and favor getting bigger.
    Consider restrictive weight loss dieting goes back 150 years and all we have to show for it is, there are now more overweight and obese people in the US then there are “healthy weight people”.
    Seemingly our contemporary culture in tandem with the very powerful biological drives of our physical and psychological natures predisposes most of us to gaining weight
    It is not a ‘giant leap’ to consider that intentional weight-loss violates our very nature and is likely unnatural.
    This explains obesity, not as a disease or disorder but a perfectly natural evolved human condition…and the very reason why it is so hard to lose weight and not find it again.
    The war against obesity is perhaps a war against nature and it’s hard to fool Mother Nature

    Stephen Phillips
    American Association of Bariatric Counselors