Does the Obesity Gene Matter?

According to a story from Wales Online  [trigger warning – classically offensive headless fatty picture]:

The discovery of genes explicitly linked to obesity, by various teams of scientists around the world, raise the spectre that some people are genetically predisposed to be overweight.

Indeed, for those who carry an obesity gene – or a mutation in a particular gene – it could mean that even the strictest and healthiest diets will fail to prevent them gaining weight.

I’m not even delving into the science for reasons that will become clear in a minute.  The title of the piece asks “Should we change the way we think about fat people with the discovery of a fat gene”?

Sociologist Shirlene Badger states

“But when families receive this, there are no real treatment options for them and the diagnosis is very difficult to take anywhere in terms of an explanation in the public arena.

There have even been problems when families have taken that diagnosis back to their local GP because obesity is still seen as input versus output.”

First, why are doctors so unwilling to let go of the belief that our weight is a factor of our current behaviors, a calories in/calories out equation and nothing more?  I think it’s shameful that the very people who are the most trained to understand the complexity of the human body still believe that when it comes to body size we’re no more complicated than a lawnmower. They ignore evidence of the multi-dimensionality of health and the abysmal success rate of dieting and they just keep prescribing weight loss, blaming the fatties when it doesn’t work. Real scientists admit that they were wrong and course correct based on better information.

But I don’t think that the biggest problem is that the prescription for weight loss doesn’t work.  I think that the real problem is that no prescription is necessary. We need to stop treating body size like it’s a diagnosis when it may just be an expression of human diversity.

In the article they talk about trying to develop a drug to “fix” the obesity gene.  What for?  There is no proof that the gene causes anything other than a big body.  People are taller than ever before but we’re not trying to make them shorter.  Some people have big feet but we’re not looking for a drug to make those feet short and narrow. Blond and red hair are a minority but we’re not trying to remove them from the gene pool.

Body size is not a health problem, and so it doesn’t need to be “solved”. Health problems have health diagnoses and  health treatment protocols so there’s just no need to prescribe a random and unlikely change of body size as Hail Mary pass for health.

Badger says that “In some circumstances it [a genetic diagnosis] does relieve the sense of stigma and the shame associated with obesity, but in other senses it can be difficult because of the stigma surrounding obesity in society.”

Ok, you know what’s not a cure for social stigma?  A genetic diagnosis. You know what else isn’t a cure for social stigma?  Weight loss. There is only one cure for social stigma and that’s ending social stigma.

You do not get to stigmatize me because I will not look how you want me to look,  act how you want me to act, or provide you with an explanation for myself that you find satisfactory.  Are you freaking kidding me?  That is not how it works. You do not get to stigmatize me.  For any reason.  If you try then I will fight you to my last breath.  I do not owe you a reason or an explanation for why you should treat me with basic human respect. Just do it.

I personally do not care about the obesity gene.  It does not matter that my body is fat.  It does not matter why my body is fat.  It is my body and none of your damn business.

23 thoughts on “Does the Obesity Gene Matter?

  1. I totally understand that many people are predisposed to gain weight. But to say that these people could eat a strict, healthy diet and still gain weight? There cannot be excess weight (specifically fat) without excess calories. To believe otherwise is to believe there are people who have evolved past the need for food.

    1. The issue is with the efficiency of the body. Calories in calories out simply does not take into account the complexity of the human body. Some people’s bodies burn a ton of calories very quickly – most people know someone like this, someone who eats a ton of food but is thin – their bodies are simply very inefficient. Other people’s bodies work on very few calories and store more calories as fat – their bodies are very efficient. So their bodies ask for whatever number of calories but prefer to turn it into fat – hence the natural diversity of body sizes. Just like we don’t make the naturally thin person stuff themselves until they gain weight, we don’t ask a naturally large person to starve themselves so that they can try to be thin. We simply suggest that people eat a healthy diet, move their bodies and focus on health rather than a number on the scale.


  2. And let’s really look at the possible, frightening, science fiction aspect to this. If they know where the “mutation” is, if they know how to find it, they can eventually set up a test for it and then, who knows, years down the line parents can (along with choosing hair and eye color and lack of certain diseases) decide to test for this gene and if the child has it, make certain decisions due to that. People do it. People decide to abort all the time to avoid certain medical conditions (Down’s especially). I can’t help but see that this could be just one more way to produce that so-called perfect race.

    1. This “perfect race” may want to select FOR overweight, because overweight people live longer. If it’s a mutation, it’s a favorable mutation. The really scary thing about this “perfect race” idea is that humans don’t have as much genetic diversity as most species already, and genetic diversity protects against extinction.

      1. Oh this I totally agree with and I would be willing to bet that the reason that so many do have a propensity to gain weight is that well, if you couldn’t readily gain weight, how could you live through a famine? I mean, it’s natural selection at its best. BUT, since we live in a time of plenty and the memory of famine to many of us is long gone, the idea now is to have this ideal of beauty that–to me–is absolutely absurd in as far as the narrowness of the ideal, if that makes any sense. I mean, SO MUCH of what is considered attractive now is really almost the OPPOSITE of what we need as a species to survive. Even sadder is how, through the media, even history has been distorted. In movies of medieval times, you tend to see “plump” peasants and skinny royalty. Well, truth is it’s the other way around. In those times, to have money meant you ate and if you ate, you usually looked a little on the plump side because if you had the food, you definitely ate it and didn’t let it go to waste!

        So yes, the thought of parents being able to choose to not have this gene concerns me greatly because on an evolutionary scale, it’s probably a good “mutation” to have but unfortunately, since “excess weight” is socially stigmatized, it’s not seen as a good thing to have. Many, I’m sure, assume that we will continue to have plenty of food to eat but there may be a day that that may not be the case. And too, going back to the post Ragen wrote on purebred dogs, I do wonder what we are doing to our genetic line having the ability to “play God” with our genes.

  3. Indeed – why would they even want to find the “fat gene” (or the “gay gene”) except to give parents a chance to select against that stigmatized trait? Brrr.

  4. I could write a very long post about this. I will try to keep it short. I share your sentiment, but I don’t totally agree. But not for the obvious reasons. I’ll just use myself as an example. If there is a fat gene I probably have it. So I would have ended up fat no matter what. But my story in a nutshell is this: I started to get a little fat, a doctor put me on a diet at six, my family became obsessed with my fat, I developed disordered eating by probably seven, then the usual progression of weight gain and loss which led me to be probably twice the size I would have been had I just been left alone. I do have “weight related” health problems, though I don’t believe they are because of weight as much as a screwed up body from all of the above. If at six a doctor had said, hey, she has a gene, let her live her life … mine would have been very different. It’s not that I would have been less fat, that’s not the point. It’s that I would have been less tortured. Now I realize they will try to “fix” the gene, but accepting the real world as real, I would rather the medical universe work on trying to fix a gene than try to fix me being a lazy glutinous piece of crap (not that I am, but that was the message). And the stigma for having a gene is very different than for being a lazy glutinous piece of crap. I could go on about environment now and processed food, bla bla bla. But that’s my main point.

    Rebecca Weinstein

    1. Hi Rebecca,

      I do understand what you are saying but my concern is – if you didn’t have the obesity gene would you have deserved to be tortured? The obesity gene may help some people be less stigmatized but to me that just creates another “good fatty”, “bad fatty” division where stigmatization is “justified” because some people believe that people can look how they want them to look if they try hard enough and so they are obligated to do that rather than realizing that other people’s bodies are not their business.


      1. Hey Ragen,

        No, of course I didn’t deserve to be tortured, gene or no gene. I get your point. I don’t disagree. I guess I am looking for a pragmatic way to “justify” the end to stigmatization. It shows a lack of faith in the world to stop being judgmental assholes, I admit. I wish people would be decent human beings just because it’s right. I am game for working toward that too, actually I am working on that too. But perhaps we need a multi-pronged strategy …


  5. I am reminded of the race to find the “gay gene.” As if finding a gene to be responsible is the only way to make differences in the sexual spectrum or physical diversity acceptable. Really? Is it only “okay” to be “different” if we can’t help being “different.”

    Gee… maybe gene therapy can fix everyone who isn’t white, heterosexual, and thin. Because obviously we need fixing 😦

  6. I’m not gonna lie – if isolating the fat gene(s) someday leads to a safe genetic therapy that offers permanent weight loss, I’ll be very excited about that.

    But I agree that we don’t need a genetic diagnosis to be treated with basic human decency…. just like I don’t think LGBTQ folks need to prove that they were “born this way” to be entitled to equal rights and basic respect. Life and bodies are complicated and “know-it-alls” need to learn a little humility.

  7. I just saw this yesterday and was devastated (as a redhead): Redheads Turned Down By Sperm Bank (
    Thank you for writing this post! I had been wondering what would happen if/when it gets to the point where people can “correct” anything in our DNA seen as a defect (cosmetically, too). Gattaca, you know? It’s all just scary. Even if there was some sort of public announcement that all fat people are simply genetically so and not by their own hands, it would be worse. I mean, I think it’d be like social segregation (not that it isn’t now, but I don’t think it’s so bad). It all boils down to judgment though. If we remove the judgment of ourselves and others, we live a very different life than what society deems acceptable/ideal now.

  8. I would also be concerned that identifying a “fat gene” would give insurance companies yet another reason to deny people health care. Notblueatall mentioned the movie “Gattaca.” In that movie, the main character was discriminated against merely for having the genes predisposing him towards health conditions he didn’t even have and might never have.

    Also, one gene is rarely solely responsible for one trait, especially something comnplicated like body size. The alleged “gay gene” isn’t an accurate predictor of sexual orientation, for example (source: Evolution’s Rainbow, J. Roughgarden).

    Also, why isn’t anyone looking for the gene that causes people to be judgemental assholes?

    1. “Also, why isn’t anyone looking for the gene that causes people to be judgemental assholes?”

      Exactly! Let’s get rid of the hate once and for all!

  9. I have this scene in my head whenever I hear talk about curing fat genetics in which we eliminate all of the fatties from the gene pool and everyone’s left with super fast metabolisms and slender thin frames… and then some kind of famine hits and the human race becomes eliminated because they all starve to death because their bodies just can’t store the fat that they need to survive. I think this would make an awesome futuristic suspense film.

  10. Nicely written as always. And as for the gene or genes, newsflash people, the fact any of us exist is because throughout human history it was often those that could survive the famines, droughts, pestilence, illnesses, diseases and extremes of weather meant they could reproduce and pass on their genetics to the next generation. Genetic diversity (which includes height and weight etc) and the ability to hold onto some body fat is part of that. So the very thing we have evolved to do over thousands of years is now dispised? Interesting isn’t it. The very condition that thousands still face as in lack of food or disease which ravages their bodies and leaves them thin and frail is desired in our culture…oh the irony and ingratitude.

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