Fat, Sweet Machine

Lord Saletan weighs in

Dear Will Saletan,

While I appreciate the tone of something approaching what might generously be called sympathy in this conclusion to your article on “Obesity, genetics, and responsibility“:

That’s my personal takeaway from the study: Those of us who don’t get fat should stifle our piety. Our relative thinness is 77 percent hereditary. I should know: I eat like a horse and can’t gain weight. We need to think of obesity the way we think of alcoholism or allergies: as an unevenly distributed biological predisposition to seek or suffer harm from common environmental factors. Yes, we should struggle against it. But it’s more of a struggle for some than for others.

you seem to have forgotten a crucial difference between fat, alcoholism, and allergies. I’ll give you a hint: when you’re alcoholic, you can choose not to drink alcohol. When you’re allergic, you can choose to avoid the allergen. I’m not saying it’s easy in either case, but it’s physically possible.

I’m going to let you ponder what the difference is for a moment. If you’re having a hard time, try using the same phrasing: “When you’re fat, you can choose to stop ____.”

Got it?

Fat people need to eat, too. And guess what? They get to. Because they’re human beings. You’re goddamn right you can stifle your piety — which, by the way, seems to be only enhanced now that you know you’ve won the genetic lottery and aren’t just morally superior to all those fat people you see. How about this? You eat like a horse if you want to. Fat people will continue to eat like humans, just like they always have done.

65 thoughts on “Lord Saletan weighs in”

  1. Wait, I’m confused – should you help your friends overcome their genetic addiction through the power of starvation before you dump them for making you fatter or after?

  2. Actually, treating someone badly for being fat seems pretty similar to treating someone badly for having allergies. I can take antihistimines, but the likelihood is that I’m still going to sneeze at least a few times a day and my eyes are still going to water here and there no matter where I live, how dust-free I try to keep my home, and if I refuse to visit homes with pets. Sensitivity toward tree pollen and animal dander is not a moral failing, and neither is a propensity to be any certain size. I avoid certain foods which would cause me fatal reactions, because I value my life over the taste of them. I put up with a some watery eyes because I prefer the company of dogs and the friends they live with to having them absent from my life. And just about everyone once getting off the merry-go-round of madness, prefers eating good food to constantly measuring out portions and obsessing about becoming a size six. So shove that in with everything else you’re eating like a horse, Mr. Saletan.

  3. My favorite part of this article is the picture captioned “Fattening food” that shows a headless woman eating french fries; her breasts are clearly the center of the photo. Hmmmm. Is this a message to the fat babies?

  4. Laura, thank you for writing about this so I didn’t have to.

    Also, I love how he says he eats like a horse and can’t gain weight, then two sentences later says we need to struggle against obesity. WE? You got a really fat fucking mouse in your pocket?

    And as always, the guy who couldn’t gain weight if he tried cannot extrapolate from that that there are also people who couldn’t lose weight if they tried — AND THEY’VE TRIED. Even when that guy is writing an article about the heritability of body type. Jesus H.

  5. Oh thank goodness, I sure was aching to hear what he had to say about it. Thank you, Lord Saletan, for absolving some of us of some of the crime of fatness, as long as we avoid food for the rest of our lives, while you have oats and bran fed to you by slave children!

  6. Lord Saletan, prithee accept this large bag of the finest Shut the Fuck Up in all the kingdom.

    Seriously, he needs to injest just such a bag every damned day of his life.

  7. Head, meet desk.

    I think Mr. Saleton missed the lesson he claims to have learned pretty spectacularly. Allow me to school you, Mr. Saleton:

    (holds up juicy, red apple in one hand and delectable banana in the other)

    You see, you want us all to be bananas. You are a banana. There’s nothing at all wrong with being a banana. Bananas are lovely. They taste good. They are brimming over with potassium which is good for us. Mother Nature created bananas to be good, and tasty, and lovely, and delicious.

    The thing is, many of us are apples. Apples are not bananas. Apple should not try to be bananas. Why would an apple even want to be a banana? We have our own beauty. We are just as lovely and taste just as good as you do. We are brimming over with vitamin C and fiber and other excellent things. What’s more, even if we tried really, really hard, nothing will ever make an apple a banana.

    And there’s bloody well room in the fruit salad of life for both of us, as well as all the other lovely, tasty, nutritious fruit out there.

    Now do you fucking get it?

  8. Mmm. Not to troll, and I hardly want to defend Saletan, but that last paragraph is hardly objectionable.

    I have moderately severe environmental allergies. ‘You can just choose to avoid the allergen’ for me would require living in a plastic bubble with filtered air piped in and even then if the air smelled weird I’d probably sneeze. I would never travel, I would never go outdoors, I couldn’t stay indoors because I need the fresh air, I would never go anywhere where there is a new scent or dust or furniture polish or anything. I break out in hives fairly easily.

    In other words, “just avoid it” w.r.t. allergies is about as extreme as insisting that everyone could be thin if they just worked out 5 hours a day and starved themselves and avoided cough drops. I choose my allergies exactly like you choose to be your body weight: none of us have a huge say in how our body reacts to our environment.

    And it’s a good comparison in another way. No one thinks I’m morally bankrupt if I have watery eyes and am sneezing; no one should think a fat person is morally bankrupt either.

  9. I don’t think any of these people will stop weighing in (no pun intended) until all us fatties get our mouths wired shut so we won’t be able to eat anything. Seriously, I think that’s what they would like.

  10. Twistie, I’m laughing at what you said. I just ate a banana a short while ago, and they are indeed delectable (although I’d love raspberries if we had any in the house).

    I am not laughing at Mr. Saletan’s comparison (OK, maybe it was really the researchers’) to phenylketonuria. At least he’s almost being honest about what’s really happening here: They want babies tested at birth (as they are for PKU) and put on a special diet to prevent them being ‘damaged’ by their ‘faulty’ genes (as with PKU again).

    The difference is, the gene in this case is not even necessarily faulty. The kids won’t necessarily be damaged if they do become fat. And we don’t know what kind of diet will keep a child thin if he or she is genetically predisposed to be fat. We can’t eliminate one specific chemical, like in PKU.

    Still, any kind of deprivation will do, and unlike in PKU, they won’t even expect anyone to check if whatever diet they try is a balanced diet for a growing child, because hey, they’re only fat kids, right?

    Diet infant formula, anyone?

  11. The primary problem that I see in this article is that he’s still writing with the presumption that obesity is an ‘evil’. Even though they link to Daniel Engber’s article disputing the “high cost of obesity” right up top, Saletan still is hung up on his certainty that obesity is something “bad” that must be avoided at all costs.

    I actually read in that final paragraph an implicit recognition that while he can eat whatever he wants and gain weight, he acknowledges that others can’t, hence the “it’s more of a struggle for some than for others” line. The error in his thinking, as I see it, is that he believes that those who are genetically predisposed to gain weight must struggle against it, whether for health, aesthetic, or cost reasons (the obesity epidemic, oh noes!!!). How exactly we’re supposed to do that, I don’t know and he doesn’t say – of course, he doesn’t know either, just that we’re supposed to keep trying!

    But as there are still many people out there who refuse to acknowledge the heritability of body type and the difficulty/inability of some people to lose weight by “calories in, calories out”, I tend to think that an article like this in the popular press is at least a tiny bit of a start. Obviously we have a long way to go in getting people to recognize that obesity is not inherently bad, but at least it will potentially convince some people that obesity is not inherently a “lifestyle choice”.

  12. I am a thin person who eats like a horse, and because of this I am aware that it’s a really stupid idea to ‘struggle’ against fat.

    Oddly enough, most thin people I know eat a lot more than most of the fat people I know. Dieting issues and body hatred aside, most skinny people require an enormous amount of energy just to go through a normal day. And yet, no one gets up our asses for being pigs.

    Funny, that.

  13. I’m going to have to agree with Aebhel. I ate a burger yesterday that was a total of one pound of meat (And I ate some fries….mmmm.. lol). Why am I not a moral failure? lol

  14. I imagine that Mr. Saletan is much like some of my well-meaning friends who don’t, or maybe just can’t get it – they’re “okay” with me being perfectly happy with my fatness, but still wincing reactively when I crack a joke about my being fat, or *gasp* refer to myself as a ‘fat chick’ with a smile on my face! They’ve got this feeling like fat’s this Big Evil, or some Moral Failing, but I’m not immoral, nor do I eat much, and I’m a really nice/good person, and I’m active and all, thus there’s just no way I should call myself fat, despite the size 20 evidence to the contrary. Or, when they talk about fat = unhealthy, they try to make it clear that it’s not -me- they’re talking about, it’s those OTHER fat people that aren’t me. They try -so hard-, but I still just want to smack them with a big ole’ sack of shut the hell up.

  15. What bothers me about this paragraph distills down to…ok, it’s genetic, we know it, but you have to TRY to change it anyway.

    In other words, we are telling you that you have a moral obligation to use up all your energy and time and brain power on what we openly acknowledge is a pointless Sisyphean task. No, you don’t get to choose how to use your time and energy to do productive things like participate in society or make the world better, you have to spend all your energy doing something utterly useless BECAUSE WE SAY SO.

    Fuck that.

  16. What I don’t understand is if 77% of obesety is frowhat they mean with 77% of obesety comes from the genes. Does he mean that 77% of all the big persons have genes that make them fat no matter what or that 77% of the overweight some people have come from their genes.

    (ex: one person har 100kg overweight, does he mean that 77kg of that are from genes and resten from lifestyle or does he mean that out of 100 overweight people 77 will never be thin no matter how much they try).

    And since he means that we should try to prevent overweight the same way some people must prevent alcholism, does he mean alcoholics are also moral failures like fat people?

    And to turn it around, if, as some research point towards, being fat are healthier and less a burden on the economy, is he a moral failure for not managing to gain weight?

    (sorry for typos, blame bad schooling and the fact that I’m fat ans therfore lazy and dumb)

  17. I think the underlying theme of “it’s genetic, but goddammit we’d better see you dieting anyway” is more prevalent (at least, to my eyes) in this paragraph:

    Accordingly, the authors propose a “behavioral, genetic model” of overweight. They embrace the liberal idea of “creating healthier external environments,” along with the conservative idea of “teaching vulnerable persons to adopt life-long prudent habits.”

    It’s not a diet, people–IT’S A LIFESTYLE CHANGE! Pffft. Blow me.

  18. My favorite part was this:

    Fidgeting has been shown to burn lots of calories; it’s highly plausible that fidgeting is genetically influenced and that it drives people to exercise.

    Um. So, he’s saying that think folks are genetically prone to working out, because *he* thinks it’s plausible that fidgeting is genetic? Smells scienterriffic! (says the 300 pound nonstop fidgeter)

  19. Smells scienterriffic! (says the 300 pound nonstop fidgeter)

    Ha! No kidding. He should meet my 300-lb. + sister, whose knee doesn’t stop bouncing up and down even when she sleeps.

  20. Believe it or not, I tried fidgeting to try to enhance weight loss after that ‘fidgeting’ study was reported. If I listen to music on headphones, I have a hard time not dancing. So I wore headphones a LOT more than normal: at least 3 hours a day, on top of my usual (active) lifestyle.

    The thing that made me roll my eyes was yet again the fat==sedentary thing. I LOVE, and have always loved, exercise. I get high on it, and it is therefore addictive. I have to be careful not to hurt myself with over-exercise.

    And I am not *thin*. Not even a little bit thin. I’m fat. Exercise changes my weight by 10 pounds. Maximum.

  21. “When you’re fat, you can choose to stop ____.”

    worrying about it.
    killing yourself trying to change it.
    waiting to live.

  22. I’m the queen of fidgeting! All 300 + pounds of me!

    Heck, I can’t even STAND still. I will rock profusely, and it drives my mom nuts.

    Oh, and my sleeping habits? I move my legs up and down in the air all night.

  23. I stopped taking anything Will Saletan had to say seriously back when he was telling everyone to dump their fat friends. I figured I ought to avoid him on the grounds that stupid might also be contagious.

  24. ***applause***

    And while we’re at it, can we have an extra round of applause for all the THIN PEOPLE who get it (here and elsewhere)? Were that you were the ones drawing the Slate paycheck and not Lord of the Fleas here.

    I mean, it’s nice of him to recognize that if he woke up ZOMG300POUNDS it would be utter torture for him to try to eliminate half his body weight. But really, “an unevenly distributed biological predisposition to seek or suffer harm from common environmental factors”? What does this sound like to you? Sounds to me a whole like the old “gay people can’t help being deranged perverts” arguments I remember from the 1970s.

  25. The “fattening food” picture is hilarious! Why are fries being shown with a thin girl’s boobs?

    “teh fries are as tempting and irrisistable as boobs, but like teh boobs, WE MUST RESIST”

    Other than that the article was a generic “teh fatties are irrisponsible” article.

  26. Another fat fidgeter here. I am highly-strung, excitable, I have cerebral palsy, & also emotional issues as an abuse survivor. When I sit in a straight chair, I rock, & have ever since I was a baby. I wiggle, tap my feet, shake my legs, get up dozens of times daily to walk around the house, go to the bathroom, get a drink. I also exercise…walk a lot, lift dumbbells, etc., live in a second-floor apartment & make many trips up & down the stairs, do not have a car or a license & do most of my errands around town on foot, as well as the usual chores/housework around here, & also, at least two or three days a week, I spend hours chasing after & wrestling with my two-year-old granddaughter. I am constitutionally incapable of being still for any length of time. However, since I am fat, I must never move my lazy ass. I am SOOO past tired of hearing this stated over & over again.

  27. Saletan needs to get his analogies straight. Is fat like alcoholism — you’re completely unable to intake in moderation? Or is it like an allergy — when you take something in, you react to it in a way that is harmful to you? They’re both shitty analogies (EVERYONE is “addicted” to food; not nearly all fat people compulsively overeat; storing energy from food is not exactly the same as going into anaphylactic shock), but more importantly they’re not even self-consistent.

    Also, I’m fidgeting RIGHT NOW.

  28. I don’t think people with allergies really have all that much choice in the matter, actually. I know this because as someone with several different indoor and outdoor allergies, where am I supposed to go? Into a bubble? WHY DO YOU WANT TO PUT ME INTO A BUBBLE SWEET MACHINE? :P

    Seriously though, the part when he says “Fourth, just because something is genetically caused doesn’t mean it can’t be behaviorally controlled.” Uh, where are you getting this from? You know what? My two (blood related) sibings are very small, thin people. They grew up in the same environment, yet they ate (and still do eat) probably twice as much food on a daily basis as I did. They both have fast metabolisms and voracious appetites. So are you saying that for me, as the genetic “loser,” I need to take my lumps as a personal misfortune and begin starving myself into thinness? Because it’s my “responsibility” to do so?

  29. “Fourth, just because something is genetically caused doesn’t mean it can’t be behaviorally controlled.” Uh, where are you getting this from?

    Exactly… the blame for the faulty allergy analogy lies with Saletan. He made the allergy comparison, but also said that a genetic basis is no excuse for not doing whatever it takes to combat genetics — which, if you take his own analogy, means that yes, you go live in a bubble now.

  30. :fidgeting:

    The PKU analogy is *stupid.* PKU is a single-gene genetic defect which makes a person unable to metabolize phenylalanine (a normal component of protein foods.)

    Fat genes, OTOH, are an *adaptation* which allows people to survive long periods of starvation. If you have fat genes, it’s because your ancestors *needed them to live,* did live, and passed those genes on to you. (Obviously *someone* had to find them sexually attractive in the meantime, LOL.)

    People who smugly state “Well, those genes are atavistic and are no longer needed” should keep in mind that most major cities in the First World are probably about 2 weeks from starvation, were something to happen to our highly interdependent infrastructure. Cast us back even 200 years ago, add a famine or two, and people will be begging for those fat genes.

    What irritates me about this article is the writer’s ASSumption that if you have fat genes, you’re somehow morally “obligated” to diet; i.e. to keep your genes from being expressed (as if that’s even possible.) But why?

    There’s a vague understanding that problems like heart disease, diabetes etc. have genetic components. Sometimes these are *correlated* with being fat (and may even be *correlated* with having fat genes. Not that anyone can tell right now.) But there is no way anyone can say right now that “fat genes are bad and will make you sick.” That’s completely unproven.

    Another stupid statement – “it’s been 15 years since we’ve had an obesity epidemic, and genes don’t change in 15 years.” For one thing, all you have to do is move the measuring rod (i.e. BMI) a bit lower, and bingo – there’s an “epidemic.” For another, when William Sheldon in the 1930s and 1940s was measuring college students for his “Atlas of Men” (working out his “somatotype” theories of physical constitution), guess what. He found fat guys to photograph! (I know, because as an anthropology student back in the Pleistocene, I was perving on them! LOL)

    Anyway, gene frequencies can change *very* quickly in a population – in one generation, as a matter of fact – if there is a powerful differential in reproductive fitness. IOW, if fat people (whose fat is due to their fat genes) have more children, on the whole, then there will be more fat-gened people in subsequent generations. It does NOT take a long time to radically change gene frequencies in a population if there is a lot of selection going on.

    Sorry to be so ranty, but these oft-repeated misconceptions just irk me. /rant off

  31. 1. Somebody forgot to tell him that the BMI definitions have changed. Oops!

    2. So he’s acknowledged the studies that show fat has a genetic component. Apparently he now needs to be prodded out of his comfy pseudo-enlightenment to see also that when people are not starving, they naturally carry different healthy amounts of fat. No rest for the wicked I say.

    3. Why is there a smiley face in the right-hand blank margin?

  32. Linda, that’s Chip, the blog ghost. He counts hits for us. I don’t know why his projection into this dimension has the form of a smiley face; it’s a WordPress thing.

  33. Hey, look at it this way, at least he stopped at allergies and alcoholism. My fatness has been likened to smoking, road rage and … paedophilia by many a troll. Saletan must have missed a trick.

  34. I have moderately bad seasonal allergies — “hay fever” and a pretty serious reaction to cat dander — and I’ve certainly had people treat me with distain because of this. Even though I’m not contagious, I do sneeze lots of times in an average day (slightly fewer times if I take claritin) and people generally think I might make them sick. As a kid, these allergies were really yukky and I had the choice between meds that made me sleepy or having a constantly running nose. At school, I ended up in the nurse’s office and even the psychologist’s office due to sleeping in class.
    In a way, I think that my choice to not take more serious meds (or allergy shots) in Spring, in particular, isn’t that different from my choice to not diet — it’s my body, it’s my decision what to put into it or not to put into it. It’s certainly not a perfect comparison with weight.
    And like being heavier than is popular, there are things I can do that might alleviate some of my symptoms, but I would rather not, as I believe the underlying cause isn’t likely to shorten my life.
    I certainly have gotten less shit directed at me throughout my life because of weight than because of allergies, but in both cases, it does make me different and inspire a “yuck” reaction from some.
    One quirky thing about me that some people think is funny — most any strong scent – pleasant ones, spicy ones, food-related ones — can make me sneeze.
    I think it’s generally acknowledged for people with non-life threatening allergies such as mine that it’s well within our choice how to treat them. A similar attitude towards weight would be an improvement.

  35. I have nothing to add but I needed to come over here for a glorious dose of sanity. I got into it on a message board today — politely, but still, it was an intarwebs argument — and got bingoed so hardcore

    “If you’ve never been overweight, why restrict calories?”

    “because I don’t want to become overweight. I gained 10 pounds in my last year of college, that was enough of a wake-up call. I didn’t need to cross the magic BMI cut-off point to realize I had a problem.”

    I’ll be over here in my corner crying.

  36. This article reminds me of a little moment in my past:

    I was on my regular morning workout, which included a walk in the park after weightlifting. And I had on, you know, workout clothes. Having just finished my six laps of the stairs that went to the upper level of the park, I was pretty sweaty, and being part Irish, my face was red.

    But I was on the cool-down part of my walk, and about to head home.

    Suddenly, some non-regular (and non-fat) park goer calls to me from across the manicured walkway. Here’s what he said: “Good for you!!!”

    Umm…thanks, toolbag.

  37. Yeah, I love it when people assume there were no fat people around ever until 15 years ago other than freak exceptions like Cass Elliot and Orson Welles. I mean, come on now. I had fat grandparents. They were born almost 100 years ago. Surely I’m not the only one. (Although I strongly suspect many people who make this assumption have never known any Jews, Italians, African-Americans, or Latinos personally, at least not well enough to be familiar with the body habiti of their extended families.)

  38. “When you’re fat, you can choose to stop ____.”

    The glibertarian answer is, “Eating the same number of calories your fat ass is currently burning, and eating fewer of them instead, few enough to use up your fat stores.” Which of course assumes:

    1) That that number remains constant and does not ratchet itself downward in response to efforts at self-starvation.

    2) That that number, even if drastically reduced, will always be high enough for your brain and internal organs to function and not cannibalize muscle inside your body, including heart muscle.

    In other words, if you think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask me to live on first 1200, then 1000, then 800, then 600, then 400 calories a day for the rest of my life, and run myself totally ragged with exercise on a daily basis at the same time…you fucking do it first. Only problem is, when thin people do that, it’s called anorexia.

  39. pfft, sweetmachine, fat people can too give up food.

    for about three weeks.

    that’s the mnenomic, isn’t it? three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food?

    (the unstated part of the mnenomic is “and then, you’re dead”, for those not familiar…)

  40. “When you’re fat, you can choose to stop____.”

    “Being fat at the rest of us” is probably what Our Lord Saletan would go for.

    In other news, None Given, you totally just summed up in twenty words what I have been trying to write all day without soundling like a monkey with a crayon up his nose. Congratulations, and thppt.

  41. Dear Saletan,

    If you’re not obligated to stop “eating like a horse” just because you’re thin, then I’m not obligated to “struggle” more just because I’m fat.

    In other words, if you really think that, “Not everyone needs good habits. Only ‘vulnerable persons’ do,” you’re an ass.


  42. Wonderful writing again; however, one criticism…there are some allergies that are not possible to avoid ( you can minimize them, but never avoid them). I’m allergic to alternaria which is the mold that is part of the process of decomposing plant matter. It is everywhere, especially when you live in an environment that does not ever freeze.

  43. I wonder whether his lordship proposes skin bleaching for all of those unfortunates whose genes make them darker than he finds palatable? What an asshat.

  44. Re: the evolutionary advantage of fat genes. I was thinking about this the other day. I am naturally skinny, and I eat a lot. My husband is even skinnier, and he eats even more. He eats four solid meals a day and if he misses one of them for even an hour he’s grumpy, feels weak, MUST GET FOOD NOW. (You don’t want to hear about our grocery bill!)

    If civilization collapses and the world goes into famine mode, neither of us is going to last a week ;)

  45. I just want to clarify that I recognize that some allergens are impossible to avoid in day-to-day life, and I don’t mean to dismiss the experiences of those of you who have such allergies. I suspect, however, that the good Lord Saletan is thinking less of the “I would have to live in a plastic bubble” allergies and more of the “I better not own a cat” allergies. This is my suspicion, though, not fact, so I appreciate your differing interpretations.

    Either way, his analogy sucks ass.

  46. I am not laughing at Mr. Saletan’s comparison (OK, maybe it was really the researchers’) to phenylketonuria. At least he’s almost being honest about what’s really happening here: They want babies tested at birth (as they are for PKU) and put on a special diet to prevent them being ‘damaged’ by their ‘faulty’ genes (as with PKU again).

    Oh, and again with the PKU stuff: One more time, folks, PKU is extremely rare. It affects approximately one birth in 15,000. Children with this condition are put on the kind of diet that would be insanely risky to put any other child on, because serious protein malnutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies can result from it. Not to mention that this diet is extremely unpleasant and nasty even without those complications. But it’s done because the alternative is progressive seizures, neuromuscular deterioration, and death at a frighteningly young age. You’d have to be a crazed lipophobe of the first order to think this level of damage happens to kids as a result of being fat. Of not having any leptin, maybe — but even there you don’t starve the kid, you get them frigging leptin.

  47. Dear Mr Saletan:

    Nice to hear you’ve caught up with the research, and are now aware of the degree of heritability involved in the body’s tendency to retain energy as adipose tissue. Now, let’s take this a bit further.

    Consider a group of persons living a typical hunter-gatherer lifestyle, or a typical peasant farmer lifestyle. Food supply is intermittent, rather than being continuous. Some times of the year, you don’t have much to eat, while at others, you’re in a position of surplus. Consider whether or not a tendency to retain energy as adipose tissue during the times of plenty would or would not be useful during lean times. The ability to be fat and stay fat even during the leanest times used to be regarded as a sign of marriageability and wealth in such societies (which were the vast majority of human populations up until approximately a century ago). It is therefore unsurprising the genes for retaining adipose tissue have been inherited by the majority of the population.

    Now consider the difference in speed of adaptation between human cultures and human biology. Culture is capable of large scale changes in a very short timespan (less than one generation). Biology is capable of small changes, manifest over a longer span of generations. The majority of the reasons why thin is in are cultural, and have manifest themselves over the past half-century with the spread of readily available food supplies to the vast majority of the Western world – after all, when being able to stock your larder with a wide variety of foodstuffs isn’t the result of months and years of work in the garden, and weeks of work in preserving and storing it, but rather the result of being able to make a weekly trip to the supermarket, maintaining a full larder is no longer a badge of success. The invention of the refrigerator and the freezer were the twin death-knells to whole realms of expertise in food preservation and storage, and the end result was everyone could have as much food as they required without having to worry about seasonal variations in supply.

    Our genes, meanwhile, are still adapted to the variability of supply which occurs in the natural world, and as a result, our bodies will tend to retain the excess energy we consume in order to fuel us through the upcoming lean times. If we starve ourselves (for example, by dieting) our body doesn’t just use the fuel reserves we have on hand – it actually works to conserve those reserves for as long as possible.

    [Just as a side note, does anyone know whether there’s been any studies done to compare dieting with actual scarcity rationing? Is there a difference to the way the body burns food when the mind knows the food is readily available compared to the way the body burns food when the mind knows food is scarce? Does this make a difference? Could psychology be making a difference to physiology, as well as vice versa?]

    Human behaviour and culture are emergent phenomena, and as such it’s hard to track any single one thing which leads directly to such complex matters as obesity, thinness, or similar. Attempting to narrow these complex, emergent issues down to a single, simple cause is not helping anyone.

  48. The only study I’ve heard of that compares dieting with scarcity rationing was one on fruit flies and smell. One of the reasons we are all supposed to diet our fat asses off is because all sorts of creatures, from flies to mice to monkeys, live longer on low-calorie diets. But a more recent study found that fruit flies only live longer on low-calorie diets if there’s no other food around. If they could smell food, it didn’t work.

    The study, “Regulation of Drosophila Life Span by Olfaction and Food-Derived Odors,” (yes, I just cited that for the fun of it) was published in Science in Feb, 2007, and I assume they’re now experimenting higher up the food chain.

  49. All hail Sniper, then!

    Well, heck! Thanks.

    By the way, my husband is doing better. And Lord Satetan is still a douchebag.

  50. This guy IS a douchebag. I am actually sort of floored that he would cop to “eating like a horse” given the utter disdain (and complete certainty that he understood all fat people’s disgusting habits… don’t pretend to ME that you don’t eat donuts all day long on the couch, and infect your thin friends with the desire to do the same, fatty) insinuated by his past writings. The lack of self-examination that some of these writers display is mind-boggling.

    Stacy, I hate that. One day I had finished my run and was cooling down with a walk on my way back to my car. Some other lady walking by said “Good for you!” I’m sure she thought she was winning the “show empathy by actually talking kindly to fatties award” with that one but it pissed me off. Another time, a fat woman rode by on her bike while I was running and said “You go, girl!” I feel a little more ambivalent about that one–and I did enjoy the fat-chick solidarity–but I still don’t really recommend cheering people on when they’re exercising. No matter what you actually mean, it comes off like you’re encouraging them for “getting started” when you have no idea what their fitness level really is.

  51. Suddenly, some non-regular (and non-fat) park goer calls to me from across the manicured walkway. Here’s what he said: “Good for you!!!”

    Umm…thanks, toolbag.

    Oh man! This totally reminds me of high school gym class! I played rec league soccer in HS and our goalie was in my gym class. She was quite large and had been her whole life. She was also constantly active but you know, wasn’t going to be a 7 minute miler. She and I were consistently the slowest runners in the class. Of course the douchefaced lean, zippy, popular kids who had finished their mile like, 5 minutes prior would start cheering from the sidelines. And the gym teacher congratulated them for their “sportsmanlike behavior,” never realizing how totally degrading and humiliating that kind of shit was. “woo hoo, run fat girl, you can do it! you can finish a mile without having a fat induced medical catastrophe! (or whatever.)!”


  52. I realize this thread is probably dead, but I didn’t see an answer to Facultades question about the heritability statistic. So I thought I’d give it a try.

    Heritability is a population based statistic. It does not mean that 77% of an individuals weight is due to genes. It refers to variation within a particular group of people. Variation is a measure of the span of weights around the mean weight for that population (think bell curve). So 77% of the variation in weight is due to variation in some as yet unknown set of genes that exist in that population. Suppose that there are 2 genes related to metabolism and each has 2 variants, so a person can have AaBb or AABB or aaBB, etc.

    Since we are unlikely to be able to change the underlying genetic variation in the population, we are unlikely to be able to have a very big impact on the variation in weight in that population.

  53. hmmm…. As someone with a food allergy, and seeing his apparent obsession with things people put in their mouths, I was assuming he was talking about food allergies. Especially with the PKU link to obesity he was mangling.

    Tho on more than one level I would love it if they could do Genetic testing and find out what each person metabolizes how. What Protein/carb/lipid ratio will make you feel better and healthier? Not what makes most of your neighbors healthier, but YOU, with YOU metabolism and genetics (and I sure as hell don’t mean thinner, I mean Healthier). Some people do better on high protein/low fat/low carb, some people do well on a low-fat vegetarian diet with the bare minimum of Protein for survival. Some people could eat a stick of butter plain every day, and feel energized and ready to take on the world.

    Oh, and Meowser on this:
    “(Although I strongly suspect many people who make this assumption have never known any Jews, Italians, African-Americans, or Latinos personally, at least not well enough to be familiar with the body habiti of their extended families.)”
    You left out us hardy survivors (well descendants anyway) of the Irish Potato Famine. I’m pretty sure everyone in my family metabolizes starches so efficiently we get double the number of calories from each gram.

    As one of my aunts said once “come the famine, we’ll see who’s laughin’!”

  54. *Suddenly, some non-regular (and non-fat) park goer calls to me from across the manicured walkway. Here’s what he said: “Good for you!!!”*
    (Sorry, this recovering luddite does not know these fancy italics!)
    This, and the commentary on my vast array of tattoos, is the reason I wear big obvious headphones. Even if I’m listening to nothing at all, they work like the magic shut up button. This was the only thing that made going to the gym palatable. I also perfected the “I see your lips moving but can’t hear you over this excellent music” look, followed by the “You’re not actually interrupting my workout to TALK,are you?” look.

  55. This morning I was denied health insurance coverage because I’m “too fat” (5’9″, 240, meh).

    Do they deny coverage to people with food or environmental allergies?

  56. Meg Thornton: Our genes, meanwhile, are still adapted to the variability of supply which occurs in the natural world, and as a result, our bodies will tend to retain the excess energy we consume in order to fuel us through the upcoming lean times.

    This explanation makes a lot of sense to me. It should also be a wakeup call to the “bright boys” who think we should somehow try to “eliminate” those genes. They’re there for a reason, one that’s had hundreds of thousands of years to establish themselves. As someone said above, we’ve only had reliable refrigeration and food transport for about a century.

    Kua: Someone else more knowledgeable than I can correct me, but IIRC I don’t think they bred the animal populations that were living longer on semi-starvation diets. A *fair* study/comparison would be to look at reproductive rates (i.e. genetic fitness) in higher- vs. lower-calorie populations. My guess would be the stress of breeding would result in a lower life span, and perhaps the low-calorie group might even do worse. But until studies are designed which ask the right questions, we won’t know.

    carovee: Since we are unlikely to be able to change the underlying genetic variation in the population, we are unlikely to be able to have a very big impact on the variation in weight in that population.

    Populations change their genetic variation all the time – through natural and sexual selection. If you have a subgroup in a population with more fat genes, and they have a higher fertility rate on average, then you will definitely see changes in weight in the population. Even small fractional differential fertility rates produce substantial changes in genetic frequencies over time.

  57. On the ‘good for you’ thing. I had a woman in Berkely (of course) say this to me becuase I was, as an adult, trying to learn to ride a bike. (I know). Then she called me ‘brave.’ I was like, thanks, lady, but I’m not dying.

    More seriously, though, I think it’s a sad comment on how cowed and fearful we expect people to be that learning a new physical skill as an adult, like exercising when you don’t have the so-called ‘ideal body’ is seen as ‘brave,’ rather than as, you know, a part of life. I mean, with the way the world is, it is often brave, but it shouldn’t have to be.

  58. Agree with the allergies people. Some of us who choose not to suffer our allergies cannot even do that – shots and pills don’t work for some. They work for me, luckily, but I’m allergic to many types of mold, dust mites, pollen, cats, rodents, and get mild hay fever, so if allergies were fat, I’d be prone to getting heavier except in winter with an air filter :). If I had to exercise 5 hours a day and eat 1100 calories to avoid allergies, I wouldn’t do it!

    So just as some people with allergies decide to suck it up and not take the pills or get shots, some fat people choose not to exercise 5 hours a day.
    And just as some people with allergies decide not to suck it up and they DO take the pills, some fat people choose to try and lose weight.
    There is nothing wrong with either of these, but there is nothing RIGHT about either of these either. Hooray if you want to, hooray if you don’t.

  59. I’m not convinced that ‘thirfty genes is the whole story regarding genetics f fat or thin, the variability of any human beings metabolism is such that we may not need them as individual metabolism may be designed to accomodate shortage and surplus of food.

    A lean person’s metabolism can slow down dramatically enough in times of shortage, whereas a fat body in the same situation can suddenly start losing weight very quickly indeed. We must remember that dieting is an artificial manipulation and the body knows it, it is not the same as not having food because the crop has failed.

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