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.

Share This:

Share

How Do We Build a City That Works For Everyone?

I recently hosted a couple of conversations for people in the city of Lancaster, UK, in which we explored this question together: “How Do We Build a City that Works for Everyone?” We framed the conversation (which we had using a ‘World Café’)from two current and important concepts. Firstly, the great work of Kate Raworth in ‘Doughnut Economics’ – how do we create a city that is socially just for the people who live here and that is environmentally sustainable for the future? In other words, how do we ensure we have an economy that is distributive and regenerative by design? Secondly, we drew on the important work of Sandro Galea (Professor of Epidemiology at Boston State) and his concept of the Goldfish bowl as a way of thinking about ‘Population Health’ or Epidemiology (see my last blog). Politics IS health, according to Galea.

 

One of my favourite quotes is from Einstein, when he said that “If I had 60 minutes to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes trying to find the right question and then I could solve the problem in 5 minutes.” It turns out that the question we used itself is problematic at a few levels! Here are some of the questions we found ourselves wrestling with: Do we need to build the city, when it is already here?! What do we really mean by ‘the city’ – is it people and communities or more than that? What do we mean by ‘works for’? That felt to some like we were settling for something that was just enough, maybe scraping by, rather than thriving! And who do we mean by everyone?! This didn’t stop us having a a great discussion, but highlights how powerful the perspectives and biases we bring into the room can be!

 

Despite not having a perfect question, (and hopefully, by the time we host 3 much bigger conversations across the city during 2019, we may have honed something more helpful!), some key themes emerged, through our generative conversation. 

 

  1. Relationships are vital! We want to live in a city which really does “work” for everyone. So, we want to give value to the currently unheard voices and we want to value diversity and inclusivity. Taking time to get to know neighbours and colleagues grows a richness of community. We want to live in a city that values love and kindness in how we treat ourselves and other people.
  2. We need to build on the amazing assets and skills that we already have in the city. If we made space and time to discover and share these skills with each other more, we would develop a richer life experience within our communities. This is an expression of ‘gift economy’ and ‘reciprocity’, which Charles Eisenstein writes powerfully about in his book ‘Sacred Economics’). It builds on voluntary power, and may require a reimagining of how we work and what we value in how we invest our time, energy and resources. We also have so many incredible physical assets in this area, which we don’t tap into enough or perhaps make fully accessible for all who live in the city.
  3. People want to be part of the change, not have change happen to them! This requires much better engagement and democratic discussion about how budgets are spent, for example or how land is developed. Somehow, there needs to be a better safeguarding against ‘invested interests’ and ‘dodgy deals’ with far more transparency about how decisions are made. Such a process, it is believed, would enable far better personal and corporate responsibility when it comes to caring for the fabric of the city and the people who live here, similar to what has been developed in Wigan. There was a recognition that when we talk about personal choice and responsibility that this is much more possible for some people and communities than others. However, it was felt that increasing self-esteem and a sense of belonging would enable more personal responsibility and choice.
  4. Housing really matters. The physical environment is actually causing fragmentation and silos. There were many more questions than answers here – but that’s ok – this is an iterative process, and we don’t have to solve everything in one go. So…how do we create really good social housing? How could we redesign the spaces of the city to encourage togetherness and community? How do protect green spaces in the process and take care of the city’s drainage (strong memories of the recent floods)? How could we ensure that everyone has a home to live in, and what might that mean for both the homeless and also for single people?
  5. We want an education system that really values the unique beauty of each child, treats each one with compassion, mindful of what traumas they may be experiencing and values creativity and activity in education just as much as academic outcomes. We care about who our children become, not just about what exams they pass. So we recognise that we have a measurement problem but we’re not quite sure yet what to do about it! 
  6. We need to invest in our children and young people by providing physical spaces in which our young people can feel safe and not bored! Many have been affected by the closure of children’s and youth centres. If we are to really invest in our children and young people, there was a sense that we also need to provide parenting classes across the board to pregnant couples and through ‘family centres’ and schools across the district.
  7. We want to create a greater sense of value for our older citizens. There were many people present who felt they have things to offer, but don’t have an obvious outlet. Involving those retired from paid work more in the life of the city would break isolation and feed the gift economy. 
  8. Business needs to thrive in a way that really values entrepreneurial gift and allows it to flourish, whilst holding it true to the ideas and principles of the doughnut and the goldfish! How could the business community serve the needs of the city and how can the city enable business to really thrive, creating jobs, whilst caring for the environment and the needs of the people who live here? Kate Raworth’s work could really help us!
  9. Transport systems need to be redesigned to encourage more cycling and walking or the use of green public transport alternatives. Transport routes also need to join up our communities more effectively to improve opportunities for those who live in areas that are currently more financially deprived. 
  10. If we are to really improve health and wellbeing and care for the environment, then we need to see this written into EVERY policy decision. If politics IS health, as per Sandro Galea, then we need to take this seriously and stop making policies which do not care for these things.
  11. We want to be part of city that does welfare well! We think there are many possible new ways of doing things more effectively, as described in Hilary Cottam’s book, ‘Radical Help – Reimagining the Welfare State’. One of the things felt to be important is increasing skills in money management (85% of people living in social housing in this district are in debt to the city council -though this is certainly not only due to poor money management , but an unjust system that isn’t working for the majority). Morecambe Bay Credit Union offers an alternative economy as a way of using micro finance in our local geography.
  12. We need better ways to communicate and connect people together. There is smart, digital technology that could help us here….perhaps a Lancaster portal, that connects us together more effectively and helps facilitate the sharing of our assets and gifts.

 

Wowsers! Not bad for 2 conversations of 90 minutes each! Just imagine what a phenomenal city Lancaster might become over the next 10-20 years, if we set out on a journey together to build this kind of city! What is stopping us, I wonder?! #enoughnow #togetherwecan

Share This:

Share

Let The Children Play!

Tweet In The Guardian today, there is an article in which the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, is calling for more adventure playgrounds across the country, especially in our ‘poorer’ neighbourhoods. She believes we need more play schemes across the country for the long summer holidays which she argues are having a profoundly negative effect on [Continue Reading …]

Share

Health and Society – Can We Make A Difference? Part 2 – politics

Tweet In the second of this (actually 3-part!) series, I’m looking at how politics and social movement are vital at changing the health and wellbeing of our society, communities and the environment we live in. Together We Can!         Share This:

Share

Health and Society – Can we make a Difference? Part 1 – Economics

Tweet If we want to make a difference to health and wellbeing in society, tackling health inequalities, whilst protecting the health and wellbeing of the environment and creating a fair and just save for humanity…..we have to ask ourselves some searching questions about whether or not our current economic models are really fit for purpose. [Continue Reading …]

Share

Continuously Learning Health Systems

Tweet Learning requires humility. It requires us to accept that we don’t know everything, that we get it wrong sometimes, make mistakes and need to own up to them so that we don’t do the same thing again. Learning is a vital part of all we do in health and social care, if we are [Continue Reading …]

Share

How Well Are You?

Tweet I have the joy of leading some health and well-being retreats with a good friend of mine, who is a life coach. The retreats look at the idea of alignment. Human beings are unique and beautiful, incredibly intricate and are made up of layers, like an onion. Some of those layers are individual and [Continue Reading …]

Share