Obesity – Genetic or Environmental?

Obesity has become part of a serious blame culture. “Just eat less and exercise more”, seems to be the simplistic argument these days. Social media is full of ‘fat shaming’ and the public opinion has shifted much more towards it being people’s own fault if they are fat – “they should just make better choices and take more responsibility for themselves”. It makes sense right? People just need to be a whole lot less greedy and a whole lot more restrained…..Well – just for a minute, let’s suspend our judgements, put away our pointing fingers or indeed, our shame and let’s examine the evidence….and then maybe we can have a much better and kinder conversation about the obesity epidemic we’re in and what might need to change.

 

A few weeks ago, I listened to the excellent Prof Sandro Galea, Knox Professor of Epidemiology at Boston State University, give an excellent lecture on: “What Do Obesity, Opioids and Guns all Have in Common?” the answer: They are all really complex and hugely important! I am shamelessly going to use his slides from that lecture to explore the issue of obesity in this blog, which Sandro has kindly shared with me.

 


If we take any given population, let’s start by asking this question: What percentage of obesity is determined by genetics, compared to the environment? Go, on, give it a go – write a figure down, or make a mental note of what you currently presume!

 

 

 

 

In any give population, there will be a percentage of people who have a higher genetic risk of becoming obese. In the diagrams which follow, these, dark grey represents those with a high genetic risk.

 

 

 


 

There will be some people who will be obese, with or without a genetic risk. In the following diagrams, these people are represented in red/pink.

 

 


The environment is represented in green. everything that is not ‘genetic’ is considered to be environmental. This includes, air pollution, adverse childhood experiences, advertising, sugar in products, transportation, access to shops, types of shop available, family income, affordability of food, use of food banks, etc etc. The more green there is, the less healthy the environment represented.

 

So…….if we take a population with the same genetic risk factors and number of obese people, let’s see what happens to those people with a higher risk of becoming obese, when the environment is less than ideal, e.g. high stress, poor air quality, high index of deprivation, low educational opportunities, high unemployment, poor access to shops, poor transport links, high numbers of junk food outlets…….etc – here is the population in a poor environment and those with a genetic risk factor are marked with grey dots:

Look at what happens to the obesity rate in that population!! All of those with a genetic risk factor become obese! The odds are stacked against them, because their choices are significantly reduced!

But take the scenario, with the same population in an environment which is much more positive, where there is less sugar in foods, where there are more healthy opportunities for good eating and exercise, where there is no need for food banks because employment is high, jobs are well paid and the welfare state is functioning appropriately.

In this scenario – the odds are in favour of those genetically more likely to become obese – BIGTIME! Obesity rates are far less and overall the population is much more physically healthy. People who are genetically at risk of becoming obese have far less chance of actually becoming obese!

What was your answer to the percentage question at the start? It was a trick question! the worse your environment is, the more your genetics come into play! So, now there’s a complex argument about who is responsible for the environments in which we live and who creates an atmosphere of choice!

 

If we take the food industry to start with, just look at what has happened to the calorie intake of foods sold in fast food outlets over the last 20 years. If you want French Fries now, you’re eating triple the calories that you were 20 years ago, due to larger portion sizes – always upsold in McDonalds (and other like minded companies)!! TRIPLE the calories! Who’s fault is that?! A turkey sandwich, which some might consider a ‘healthy option’ is now packed with more than DOUBLE the calories that were in that same sandwich just 20 years ago! Do the maths! The way this has been allowed to happen is appalling. The government, so keen on not being a ‘nanny state’ have allowed a deregulated ‘nanny food industry’ to lovingly shove calories down our throats without most of us even realising! Prof Susan Jebb, one of the leading experts in this field, globally is really clear – if we taxed cakes and biscuits and made healthy food more affordable, we would be in half the mess we’re in.

 

The same is true of exercise, and so opportunities to exercise, created by culture and environment are really important:

If you look at how much the advertising industry is spending on obesogenic foods, or you examine where junk food cafes are placed (disproportionately higher in our most deprived communities); if you consider the profound effect of adverse childhood experiences on our eating habits or look at the affordability of health food for low income families, as shown by the food foundation, then you begin to see that this over simplistic argument that people ‘should just take more responsibility for their own health’ is total nonsense. We need to take an altogether more kind and considered view to what is an incredibly complex situation.

 

Sandro Galea talks powerfully about this principle: Small changes in ubiquitous causes may result in more substantial change in the health of populations than larger changes in rarer causes.

You can feed your goldfish the best food, ensure they swim their mile a day, help them practice mindfulness every morning and decrease the amount of time they spend on screens……but if you don’t care for the quality of the water – they will die!

 

Health inequality between the rich and poor in the UK is worsening. Health inequality between the north and south is worsening. Life expectancy overall and healthy life expectancy are both beginning to fall. Our mental health crisis is deepening. Now is not the time for loads more programmes that benefit the already healthy and make the inequalities even worse. Now is the time to ask some fundamentally deeper and more difficult questions about what we have built our society on, what the point of the government is and how, together, we might work for a future that is better for everyone. Unless we do so, the NHS continues to stare into an abyss, as indeed do all our public services.

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Who is Responsible for Your Health?

Who should take responsibility for you health? Sounds like a straightforward question, doesn’t it? But I get so frustrated when complex issues get squashed into simplified, silo-thinking, ready for twitter or media sound bites, or the under-girding of political ideologies.

So….just as the economy is not just made up of the interplay between business and the household, but is in fact far more rich and complex, so too the interplay of responsibility for our own health.

Kate Raworth, really helpfully uses the following diagram to help us rethink the components of the economy. I would like to suggest that we use it to think about health, also.

So…who is responsible for your health and wellbeing?

  1. Your Family/Household
  2. Society/The Commons
  3. The Market
  4. The State
  5. You

In some ways, I feel like all of these are obvious, in their own way, but I will just unpack each one a little bit more.

 

Your Family/Household

We all have needs. We need to know we are provided for (water, food, clothes etc), safe, loved, welcome, encouraged, disciplined and given place to dream and live those dream out. It is the role of our families or the household to which we belong to ensure those things happen as we grow. So much of our ill-health, our brokenness and our long term physical and psychological pain is because these basic needs were never met and left us without a sense of wholeness. The lack of met need, has a huge impact on the development of our personality and character. When we speak of ‘personality disorders’, each type has it’s roots in early life when needs were unmet and therefore parts of the personality remained undeveloped. Let’s face it – no family is perfect! And so, I would argue, that all of us have ‘disordered personalities’, and until we confront the shadow parts of ourselves that are trying to overcome this sense of loss or inadequacy, we continue to project an ego version of ourselves to those around us. We do so to cover over this pain, but facing it head on and allowing ourselves to fess up to our deepest needs, would actually lead to us being a great deal more healthy.

When I work with head teachers and ask them what the biggest need they have in their school, the answer is almost always ‘parenting classes’. However, there are very few providers of this available (due to cuts at a county council level) and the classes available are often very ‘middle class’ in their approach. We need to completely rethink parenting classes in the context of the poverty-truth commission and think about less twee ways to really engage with communities about how we raise happy and healthy kids. The truth that Adverse Childhood Experiences are our greatest public health crisis is not going away. Grasping this nettle is going to be painful but really necessary if we are to breathe health and wellbeing into our society.

 

Society/The Commons

Just as we get our needs met by those in our immediate household, the same is true of society. The way we treat children, the things we expose them to, the way we love them and educate them has a massive impact on their current future health and wellbeing. It’s becoming clear that social media is causing significant harm to our mental health as a nation, particularly our young people, and yet we don’t know how to curb our enthusiasm for all our technology…let alone the rise of the robots…

The commons is fast disappearing, too easily privatized and made available to those who can afford it. How do we safeguard the commons and use it for the benefit of all? What would the Diggers say to us now? The breakdown of our communities, with increasing isolation and loneliness is having a detrimental effect on our wellbeing. What can we do to recover the spaces that belong to us all and help us rediscover the joy of connecting and being together?

The commons is also about our corporate voice. It is only really vast people movements, speaking with one voice that can really cause governments to sit up, listen and take heed of the needs of the people. It is only together, that we will make enough noise to change the health and wellbeing of all of us for the better. How might we speak and act together in a way that will take corporate responsibility for all our health and wellbeing?

 

The Market

Oh the benevolent hand of the market! If only…. But the Market plays an absolutely key (though currently over played) part in our economy and our health and wellbeing. We know for a fact that advertising is deliberately trying to misinform us so that we make irrational decisions. A key component is to make people feel worse about themselves so that they buy things they simply do not need. Supermarkets are being challenged for the ways they deliberately place products and arrange their stores to cause people to buy more unhealthy things and food chains are constantly trying to ‘up-sell’ their unhealthy products and downgrade our health in the process. They evangelize the masses with the idea that we are all free to make our own choices, but if this were so, they would not spend the billions of pounds involved in socially engineering our choices, so that we ‘freely’ choose that which harms us! Oh for a market that might redefine it’s moral code! The market could do SO much good, but unharnessed and left without true accountability or consequences, it serves to damage our health – something it is truly responsible for.

 

The State

The state has a vital role and responsibility in caring for all of our health and when it washes it’s hands of that responsibility or tries to pass it over, we see a massive rise in health inequalities and overall worse-health for all. The NHS in the UK is one of the great triumphs of the state. Providing brilliant healthcare for those who need it whenever they are unwell is truly amazing. Imagine not being able to afford this because it depended on keeping up with insurance bills. It is not uncommon for us to see people in General Practice, who literally cannot afford to feed their families any more and are having to make some incredibly difficult choices (made far worse by long school holidays). Easy to point the finger and start creating a narrative about how it’s “all their fault”, but far harder to hear the truth of what it is really like to be a lived-expert in poverty and the trap it creates and harder still to look to alternative solutions, rather than believe the austerity narrative. There is clear evidence that the more unequal a society becomes, the worse the health outcomes – both physical and mental. When the market is allowed to behave exactly as it wants, we also see the health of people suffer. It is only through the right kind of government that the market can be tamed. It is only with the right kind of legislation that the economy can be skewed towards redistribution and regeneration of the resources needed – this would need to include a radically feminist approach that works on behalf of women, in particular, for equal opportunity, pay and recognition of just how much the ‘household economy’ contributes to the overall wellbeing of the nation. It is only the right kind of leadership that will tackle the inequalities we see and refuse to be wined and dined into maintaining the status quo. It is only brave leadership that will take the ecological issues, like plastic in the oceans, massive over antibiotic use in animals, and ongoing air and river pollution that will give us a healthy planet and human population in the future.

 

You

And where possible, and for some given various health issues, this is more possible for some than others – we do not all have an equal starting place or a level playing field – where we can  – we do have a responsibility to ourselves and to the wider society to care for our own health and wellbeing, so that when the health and social services are needed, they are available for all. It also means using the health and social care services in a way that creates sustainability, being grateful for them and ensuring they and the people who work in them are not abused.

 

It’s complex, but it’s vital that too much emphasis is not put on any one area. We must not play the blame game, especially not towards individuals when we haven’t taken the time to hear their story, nor understood the wider context of the role of the other vital players on the field. Each aspect of the economy plays a massive role in the health and wellbeing of the nation, and it is high time that each plays it’s relevant part to its fullest ability.

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