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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Goldfish and What They Teach Us!

Last week, I had the privilege of listening to Prof Sandro Galea, from Boston State University talking on the subject: “What do guns, obesity and opiates have in common?!” It was an amazing walk through the world of epidemiology – and the answer? Well – all three things are hugely important problems, they are all complex and therefore simple solutions cannot fix them! 

 

Virchow, one of the earliest and most influential thinkers in the realm of Public Health famously said, “Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale.” Sandro Galea takes this idea and modifies this slightly, suggesting that, in fact, politics IS health on a large scale. In other words, if we don’t get health and wellbeing (of ALL people and the planet) written into every policy, then we will never tackle the huge issues of health inequality and environmental disaster. 

 

Sandro gave an amusing analogy about his pet goldfish. He told us that every morning, he goes downstairs and sees his lovely goldfish swimming in their goldfish bowl. He cares for them, makes sure they are well fed, doing their exercises, having time for mindfulness to build resilience and ensures their contraceptive needs are catered for. Sadly, one morning, he goes downstairs and finds all his goldfish are dead. He’d forgotten to make sure the water was clean. The fish were, in effect, swimming in a cesspit (needless to ask whether or not fish are meant for a glass bowl!).

 

He has developed several principles when it comes to thinking about epidemiology. Principle number 5 states: “Small changes in ubiquitous causes may result in more substantial change in the health of populations than larger changes in rare causes.” His goldfish illustration shows that the goldfish are surrounded by water and everything they do is influenced by the QUALITY of the water they live in; therefore water is a ubiquitous factor in influencing the fish and needs to taken into consideration EVERY TIME we want to improve the lives of the fish. His point is this: if we don’t care for the environment and the external factors that give us life and wellbeing, then our other little interventions are futile. The problem is that we spend so much of our time making interventions that we can measure and feel successful about, like giving people statins, getting kids to run a mile a day, encouraging breast feeding, getting people through the ED in a timely manner or even giving them smart technology to nudge them towards better health outcomes, but we pay little attention to tackling the much bigger issues of poverty, poor housing, or air pollution.

 

The biomedical model for tackling the huge issues of population health has failed and will continue to fail. Our politics and economic model is broken! We have simply not written health and wellbeing into every aspect of our lives and have developed patterns of education and work that are actually doing more harm than good and driving health inequalities and the health of our planet in the wrong direction. Therefore, where there is evidence that policy is actually making health inequalities worse, or damaging the environment, we must challenge them with the evidence base, and plain common sense!

 

I do believe that communities can together make a massive difference, and increasingly I recognise just how vital policy is in helping us shape a just and fair society and in stewarding an environment, which is sustainable for the future. Policy and law can be love-fuelled and compassionate, and they need to become so, because politics IS health and we need to re-imagine it as such.

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