The Fat Gene Illusion

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Photo by JSmith Photo/Flickr CC


Recent news reports encouraged me to take a quick look at the January 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, where investigators have attempted to identify the proportion of human obesity accounted for by genetic variation. Their conclusion: probably no more than 1% (we used to think it was 5%). I don't know why anyone would be surprised. Obesity rates rose sharply in the early 1980s, with no possibility for so rapid a change in the genetic composition of the population.

I don't think we need complicated genetic explanations for obesity. We have so much evidence that people started consuming more calories at about that time and are continuing to do so. Why more calories? Portion sizes got bigger, and—hard as it may be to believe—larger portions have more calories!

In a commentary on the study, Claude Bouchard puts it this way:

The obesity epidemic we are facing today unfolded over the past few decades and can clearly not be explained by changes in the frequency of risk alleles. It is more likely due to a changing social and physical environment that encourages consumption and discourages expenditure of energy, behaviors that are poorly compatible with the genome that we have inherited.

Hence: eat less, move more!

Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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