Wake up and smell the cookies: being fat is not just about bad genes
Leave some room for free will - for if we don’t rebel now, gene-based excuses for fatness will be just the beginning
What news! My whole identity has been shattered. My world view has been obliterated. It’s devastating stuff. Apparently, being thin is down to genes and not, as I have long insisted, due to physical and (above all) moral superiority.
Luck, that’s all it is. Whether you disappear side-on, or have to be lifted out of your armchair with a crane, there is no virtue or blame attached either way.
Such are the findings of a new DNA study which tracked more than 10,000 people – some skinny, some average and some obese. Apparently, I am stick thin not because I have a will of iron and can resist stuffing my cakehole but because, as lead Cambridge researcher Sadaf Farooqi puts it, I have a “lower burden of genes that increase a person’s chances of being overweight”.
She thinks I should ditch my sneering as a result. Fat chance! I’ve been aware of my thinness ever since a primary school teacher pressed a copy of Fattypuffs and Thinifers into my bony young grasp. It described a segregated world where genial but lazy fatsters lolled around while the bustling thins got things done. I’m not sure it’s on the recommended reading list at schools today.
Ever since, thinster superiority over the fatties has been central to my outlook. Indeed, I thought it was part of life’s deal – sure, as a youthful weakling I may have got flattened on the rugby pitch, but reward would come as I got to look down on those heavyweights bursting out of their shirt collars by 30, and undergoing triple heart bypasses at 50.
Farooqi insists that I “should not rush to judgment and criticise people for their weight”. But I am not rushing to judgment. This is a judgment I have mulled and weighed for decades, as obesity has become an epidemic costing billions, shattering lives with diabetes and a host of other miserable, avoidable conditions. We cannot tell people it’s perfectly all right to become enormous, because it’s clearly a total disaster, both for themselves and for the National Health Service.
And we must not insist that vast swathes of the population piling on the pounds is a genetic accident for which no one can be blamed, when personal choice so obviously still counts. Far too many of us eat, and sit around, too much.
Sure, high-calorie foods are low-cost foods, meaning the fattest are often the poorest, but cheap options can be healthy options too. You don’t have to drink fizzy pop, however evil you think its manufacturers. Water from the tap is free. Let us not indulge in a carnival of blame shifting.
I am, I’m perfectly prepared to admit, bloody lucky. I scoff what I like and remain like a rake, making it far easier to jump on a bike, or go for a run. It’s a virtuous circle. I accept all that. I also accept that evolution has never been concerned with shedding weight. On the contrary, starving is what evolution has worried about, and planned against, for countless millennia. There are a host of systems that kick in to stop us dropping pounds because that has always been central to staying alive and passing on our genes.
By contrast, the body is terrible at regulating the top end of weight because never in our history has being too fat been a problem – until now.
These are all facts. But they are still excuses, still reasons not to do things we know we ought to do. And with an explosion in understanding our DNA currently under way, if we don’t rebel now, gene-based excuses for fatness will just be the beginning.
For it’s not just weight that is subject to genetic influence. Researchers like the American psychologist and geneticist Robert Plomin believe that whole areas of our personalities are too. In a recent book he produced data to show that all kinds of things, from our propensity to watch TV or chances of getting divorced, are genetically influenced. The “heritability of divorce is about 40%”, he notes. But the crucial thing here, the absolutely vital thing, is that this does not mean there is a divorce gene or a TV-watching gene.
Rather, genes make people different, and different people like the TV more or less, so genes influence TV watching. The key word is “influence”. There is no genetic determinism. Free will endures. We are still in charge. Though we may have to swim against the tide sometimes, we can.
If we absolve ourselves of all responsibility in favour of a higher power – God or genetics – then we strip ourselves of our greatest quality: the capacity to strive. It is that which has taken us from agrarian societies to landing on the moon in less than 10,000 years – a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.
If you are morbidly obese, you can strive to lose weight. Given the wrong genes, it may be fantastically hard. But you can, and you must, try – not just because it will make you healthier, but also because you are human, not an automaton.
Cassius knew the score: “The fault, dear fatties, is not in our stars, but in ourselves ... ”
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