I’ve just watched the first two episodes of the 4-part HBO special called The Weight of the Nation and it is pissing me off.
The Genetics of Obesity
The entire first episode was dedicated to telling us how complex a problem the American obesity epidemic is. Expert after expert, scientist after scientist, doctor after doctor all doing these intricate studies, spending millions of public dollars on lab analysis, imaging, computer models; talking about the genetic and evolutionary components of what drives people to overeat.
I hold an advanced degree in biology. I have studied evolution, behavioral genetics, and social evolution with some of the founders of those fields and as an officially certified expert, I am here to tell you that there is no (as in zero) genetic component to the fat problem in America. It is a one hundred percent cultural issue.
How can I say this with such confidence, flying in the face of all the televised experts I just watched? Simple. Look at France. Same genetics, no obesity epidemic. Look at America 50 years ago: same genetics, no obesity epidemic. The genetics does not change over those timeframes. It takes thousands, tens of thousands of years for any kind of significant changes to take place in a genome. As a people, Americans in 2012 are for all practical purposes 100% genetically identical with Americans of 1960.
Rebuttal #1: The fat issue is cultural.
It’s not complicated.
All throughout the show so far, doctors keep telling us how complex the overweight/obesity issue is. Interspersed with all the intricate studies, lab-work, and epidemiology, the implication is clear that we are supposed to be seeing the issue of overweight-ness and obesity as some kind of illness with complex causes.
Most of the overweight people who were interviewed in the program were very honest and straight-forward about their over-eating. But the doctors and fat experts seemed to be going out of their way to portray over-eating as an illness and obese people as victims. I don’t want to over-generalize here; I recognize that there are a population of overweight and obese people who really do have a medical problem that is causing their obesity. That is not what I am talking about here; I’m talking about the vast majority of overweight people who are overweight because of choices they are making.
This whole “something happening to me” mindset is the actual cause. To be sure, there are a lot of complex results of overweight and obesity, both at the level of the overweight individual and at the level of the collective healthcare system that is tasked with managing (and paying for) all of the many systemic effects of obesity.
But the actual cause of obesity is fantastically simple: people are eating too much and not exercising enough. Period. And in terms of the epidemic of obesity that is the subject of this special, that is a free choice that people are making.
There was one sequence where the fat experts went after the hypocrisy of the diet providers, saying that the purveyors of diets have no real incentive to solve the fat problem because if they did, they would no longer be able to make a living. True enough. But talk about people in glass houses. Many of these fat experts are getting paid public money to study all the “complex” causes of the obesity epidemic; what happens to their salary if there were no such epidemic? What happens to their salary if the problem is a relatively simple one: people eating too much food and not exercising enough?
Every time the fat experts talked about how complex the causes of obesity are, I wanted to throw something at my TV. Every time they emphasized the evolutionary, and genetic components of obesity I wanted to throw something at the TV.
The fat problem is difficult, but not complex.
Rebuttal #2: The fat issue is simple.
The first episode of the special is all about causes and consequences. I have no quarrel with their characterization of the consequences, but the causes are simple as stated above. The second episode is about what to do, both at the level of society and at the level of the individual.
My prescription is simple (but not easy). Step one is to admit that there is a problem. And for all its flaws, the existence of this series at all is a massive step in that direction. For all my complaints about it, I think it will do more good than harm. So thumbs up on that. I applaud the producers of this special and HBO for putting it out there. The American obesity problem is a serious problem. A simple problem, but a serious one. There are way too many fat people in America, and it’s getting worse.
But I also think that the real underlying cause of the obesity problem (as well as the economy problem, but that’s another post) is the cultural swallowing of unreality that is being promulgated by those relatively few who profit from it to our collective detriment. As long as there is a giant food industry that profits massively from people over-eating and a giant healthcare industry that profits massively from people being overweight, there is going to be an incentive for those industries to do what they can to maintain the status quo. Whatever their public service announcements say, McDonalds and Kaiser want you to be overweight. And they have a lot of money to spend on studies the result of which is marketing that promotes obesity.
Step two is also simple and difficult: fat people have to eat less and exercise more. There really is not anything else to do about it. There is no magic pill, no expensive machine, no surgical procedure that is going to save the day. It’s hard to discipline your addictions, but it’s a simple issue with a simple (not easy) solution: fat people have to eat less and exercise more.
The only thing that is going to motivate fat people to eat less and exercise more is their awareness of the real consequences of being fat. So again, I applaud the producers of The Weight of the Nation for helping to make this problem more visible.