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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Hacker's Diet: Obesity gene: discouraging or “just one of those things”

One of the esteemed beta testers of The Hacker's Diet Online brought this article in The New York Times to my attention and asked whether it was discouraging to folks deemed obese who wished to lose their excess weight and keep it off. My reaction—not at all!
I don't see this as bad news at all. This pretty much confirms what I wrote about in the book as a “broken feedback system”. I don't recall saying that it was probably inherited, but I've always suspected that, and around the time I was writing the book the first obesity gene was discovered in mice, which provided evidence in that direction.

To me, all it means that if you're one of those people with the inherited propensity to gain weight (like me), then you need the help of feedback to keep things from creeping out of control. So what? If you're one of those people with an inherited propensity to high blood pressure (like me), then you need to take pills every day to keep that under control also. As this article illustrates, the feedback works even when the system is perturbed by an influence you haven't yet figured out.

What is really encouraging in The New York Times article is that in the prisoner study they found that becoming obese does not permanently shift the body toward a propensity in that direction. (Although one might wonder if that would happen on a longer-term basis.)

All of that said, I just do not buy that the obesity epidemic today is entirely genetic in origin. There is no evolutionary mechanism which could explain a gene propagating through the population as fast as the rate of obesity has grown in the last several decades. Take a look at the charts produced with the marvellous WHO Global InfoBase. Now given that the populations of many of these countries with discrepant obesity rates are not all that much different genetically, it's hard to believe that diet and lifestyle do not play a part in the large differences between countries.

Posted at May 9, 2007 00:16