Is “Fighting” Obesity a Lost Cause?

Gina Kolata, an excellent science reporter from the New York Times, has been getting quite a bit of attention lately- an appearance on Comedy Central, a review of her new book, “Rethinking Thin,” in the New York Times Book Review section (May 6, 2007), and her own article in yesterday’s New York Times (“Genes take Charge and Diets Fall By the Wayside,” page D1).

The Kolata message

Ms. Kolata’s basic thesis is that we are fat and that we cannot do much about it because the causes are mostly genetic. She cites various well-known studies that demonstrate the strong genetic effects on obesity. She seems to be telling us that we can try to diet but we are probably doomed to failure because genes rule.

Is the Kolata message correct?

I (as did the book reviewer, Emily Bazelon) think Ms. Kolata, who writes very well, is off the mark. She is correct in identifying some of the data supporting strong genetic effects on body weight. What she basically ignores is the large body of data showing an enormous upsurge in obesity over the past 50 years or so; from the plethora of news reports in the past few years and warnings from the U.S. Government, one would think the epidemic has occurred entirely in the past 5-10 years). The obesity epidemic cannot be “blamed” on genetics alone; many studies have documented the environmental factors- cheap food, larger portion sizes, decreased activity levels, etc. Ms. Kolata acknowledges these phenomena but hardly considers them important enough to consider dealing with given the power of the genes.

I believe we can have an impact on the environmental factors, and while success in this area will still leave us with plenty of obesity to go around, we can have major successes in decreasing the prevalence of obesity. Of course, we individually and as a society will need to come to grips with our passion for large portion sizes and extraordinary inactivity.

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