The Genetics of Fat

Calories and Genetics

Why is this woman obese? Is it because she consumes more than the recommended allotment of calories, and doesn’t do enough exercise to burn off said calories, or is it because of lousy genetics? Sorry to tell you this, Mr Sarcastic Memer, but the answer is probably all of the above. According to the CDC, there’s probably a connection between genetics and obesity that has deep evolutionary roots. When our great-great-great-great-(edited to remove 159 instances of the word great)-great-grandfathers were foraging on the African plains for lunch, every calorie was dear. It took a comparatively large amount of energy to procure a single calorie. Food was certainly not guaranteed. Natural selection favored those with “thrifty” genetics; that is, bodies capable of storing food through times of famine.

Now, calories are cheap. I mean that in the literal sense, calorie-laden junk food is typically less expensive than healthy food, but we still have our “thrifty” bodies. In the relatively short time that we’ve made food abundant and easy to obtain (at least in middle-class America), evolution hasn’t caught up with the fact that we no longer need to scrimp and save on every nutrient we consume. All the conditions are in place: bodies pre-disposed to horde calories (some more so than others), cheap and easy access to calorie-rich food, and increasingly sedentary lifestyles. The so-called obesity epidemic was all but inevitable.

So who’s to blame? Well, it’s not as easy as that. Some people are obese because they have genetic disorders like Prader-Willi syndrome or Bardet-Biedl syndrome (Thank you, Wikipedia!) Some people are obese because they eat too much food and do too little exercise (and I write this glaring ruefully at my own spare tire). And some people are obese because of some combination of food and genes. I have no doubt that some people blame genetics for their obesity – even those whose caloric intake is far above recommended limits, but even then you cannot be so quick to dismiss them. What psychological or societal pressures are contributing to their unhealthy eating habits? What drives them to keep eating even when they know the effect it will have? Is it really so easy to just stop eating so much?

This meme sarcastically implies that this woman (and perhaps any obese person) is looking for some way to absolve herself of personal responsibility for her body shape. I just don’t think that’s the case. I think many obese people have fought valiantly against their body shape, to varying degrees of success. I think only a person who lives in an obese body can truly understand what it’s like to be fat. And I think that somebody who doesn’t understand jack about obesity or genetics probably shouldn’t make memes about either one.


One thought on “The Genetics of Fat

  1. Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory said it best. He wanted to insult someone’s fat mother, but he added a caveat that if she was only worth making fun of if her obesity was due to sloth and gluttony.

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