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Obesity and Diabetes: The Thrifty Gene


25 January 2006

Obesity and Diabetes: The Thrifty Gene

"Keep obesity silent.
Does it always make you laugh?
What kills 55,000 people a year in France.
It is not a fault, nor an inevitability.
Even less a joke."
French Campaign for Obesity

This French campaign gives a slightly different perspective than what we have seen over the past month from US and UK press machinations. Obesity, obesity, obesity...this is the new moral outrage. It is the "just say no" campaign for the 21st century. But instead of cocaine and herione, we're talking about fries and shakes. This organization, the CNAO (Collectif National Des Associations D'obeses), has decided to represent the obese and make a call for tolerance and education.

I found this image and the article in the New York Times early this morning. Inevitably, we are going to see news obesity reports from all over the world now that the NYTimes has declared it an epidemic in the City. And because the City is a micro-cosm of the world-at-large, reporters will be striking out to find news of obesity elsewhere.

What I found interesting about this article is that the lead into the story describes a child, Hakim, with a too high BMI. Hakim is an Arabic name. The New York Times reports on the diabetes epidemic interviewed many people, mostly Hispanic and African American people, struggling to manage diabetes. So, for the most part, Hispanic, African, Arabic, and Asian groups seem to be a large part of this focus.

Which leads me into one very critical scientific fact that NO ONE is discussing. (The New York Times dedicated three sentences to this fact. Appalling in that most of the above groups were their primary source. So in about 7 articles, spanning about 40 pages, this subject was given hardly a mention. Good journalism?)

Some people might dumb it down and call it a fat gene, but it fact there is a reason why all of these people are more susceptible to putting on weight.

CDC website on Diabetes
Many researchers think that some African Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islander Americans inherited a "thrifty gene" which helped their ancestors store food energy better during times when food was plentiful, to survive during times when food was scarce. Now that “feast or famine” situations rarely occur for most people in the United States, the gene which was once helpful may now put these groups at a higher risk for type 2 diabetes.

This is Genomics - the study and function of our genes. Obviously this "thrifty gene" is not the only cause or factor. Depression and other factors do play a part here. But why oh why are governments constantly pointing to psychosocial issues as the primary cause? Why aren't we using more science - specifically as stated here, genetic factors, and of course, economic barriers. Is this all a part of the nanny state?


Blogger Keith said...

I spent two weeks in Nicaragua in '98 and again in '99. I was in big cities and small villages. The whole time there I saw one person who was obese. Their economy is just now developing after years of strife, so they work hard physically and most have adequate but not an over abundance of food. We could learn a thing or two from their plight.

I know that people have different genetic propensities to store fat, but we've got to quit calling this a genetic problem. We diabetics share similar issues. If it's bad for us we shouldn't put it in our mouth or at least have a very small portion. Everything is not a disease--we've got to have some self-control and take responsibility for our actions.

1:11 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Snouffer said...

Keith, I am not calling it a genetic problem, I am stating a scientific fact -- not all factors related to obesity (and diabetes) are psychosocial. Diabetes is related to genetics - especially when we are discussing Asian, African, Latin(o)and even Indian populations (American, Aboriginal, the Mäori in New Zealand etc.) It is also just a slice of the content available when discussing genetics and diabetes. Not to mention, economics which also play a significant role - and includes education and resources. Gosh, we haven't even mentioned cultural differences! They all matter in understanding the complexities of diabetes -- who gets it and how to manage it.

Not including academic/scientific research, population studies (the real kind, not a New York City break down of the difference between those who live in Harlem and those who don't), statistics or economic data when talking about diabetes (Type 1 or Type 2) is a huge mistake.

Choosing certain fatty or sugary foods, overeating, ignoring dietary issues, taking the bus instead of walking 5 blocks et al. are all behaviorial issues...and the media propaganda seems to be heavily swayed at pointing the finger and not asking the right questions. post.

Thanks for your comment.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Keith said...

I'm sorry if I came across too strong. I evidently responded before my morning coffee had fully kicked in and missed the point of your post. My apologies.

3:04 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Snouffer said...

Don't worry Keith. I appreciated your comments. They forced me to clarify my position.

This is why we are all out here - I want feedback!

Elizabeth x

5:26 PM  
Anonymous Joyce H. said...


I am thankful to FINALLY find someone to whom I can make a comment on this subject. Through my own life experience, I have to believe in this thrifty gene, although I never heard the term until a couple of years ago. Furthermore, I have a theory that many of us of Irish descent have this gene--think potato famine. Is anyone considering this? When I looked at my friends who have had lifelong weight problems, they all have many Irish ancestors. Of course, we are all mixed up genetically, as most Americans are, but who can say which genes we inherit from which ancestors? When I finally realized that I have the body shape of a typical Irish peasant, I began to wonder what else I might have inherited. All my life I have gained weight quite easily and lost it so slowly that I've always been accused of cheating on diets--Weight Watchers, etc. I have gained and lost weight much of my life. Over the last year and a half, I have lost over 30 lbs. But you know what? I have to eat almost nothing. The minute I eat a "normal" meal, my body adds one or two pounds overnight. I am not pointing this out to say, "Poor me," but as a fact. I am not depressed, I am not diabetic, I do not come from a disfunctional family, I feel fine, I feel the same heavy as slimmer--as you pointed out--for me, this is not a psychological problem. Do I like to eat? Yes, who doesn't? Do I binge eat? No. Can I lose weight? Yes, but by eating so little that no doctor or researcher would believe me. When I eat any more, I gain. But when I finally gave up, and just let myself go, I got to a certain weight and my body was apparently happy with that. It was too heavy by today's standards, but I felt fine and stopped gaining. As I've gotten older, my blood pressure has gone up, so I have been trying to lose weight to see if that would help. It has, but not as much as you would expect. My conclusion is that, unfashionable as the idea is, some of us have genetic makeups that predispose us to be overweight. I don't think I could starve to death if I tried--my body wouldn't let me. I agree that more research needs to be done for ways to detect, alter, or medicate this gene, because I suspect that a lot of people, who have had a lot of shame, guilt, and disbelief heaped on them for years, have it. I'm no scientist, but why can't someone find a way to convince our bodies that we aren't starving when we diet, and that we don't need to pack on weight after a normal meal. I am now finding that my body is gaining weight even more quickly after this weight loss. I believe my body is frantically trying to maintain my heavier weight, which it perceived as necessary or "safe." They won't figure this out in my lifetime, but I hope someone does someday. There are many different reasons for obesity--psychological problems, binge eating, lack of exercise, etc. They have different causes, and should be treated differently, but all of us who are overweight are lumped into one category by the medical field and subjected to disbelief and disdain. It doesn't fit. Can everyone lose weight by diet and exercise--yes, probably, but how healthy is it to eat so very little? It can't be "normal." Frankly, I don't even think it's healthy. I'm taking vitamins and walking two miles a day, eating next to nothing, and my body refuses to shed more weight, and instead, gains even more rapidly when I eat a "normal" meal. How many of me are out there?

Thanks for letting me vent!

Joyce H.

9:51 PM  

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