January 19, 2010

I think I’ve posted enough about obesity. But this post touched on a slightly different aspect – the culpability of the individual when the issue is a combination of genetic predisposition and voluntary decisions. Basically, society seems to be willing to blame genetics sometimes but not others. Sometimes we expect willpower and self-motivation to solve bigger problems.

While I could compare obesity with drug addictions and mental disorders, I never thought to compare it to the more common “faults” that people choose to exacerbate or do nothing to fix. And I never fully realized that when we ask the overweight to exercise willpower to overcome their problem, that it’s almost the same as asking someone with a mental disorder or an addiction to do it on their own too. It’s like I can somehow accept that the issues we label as disorders are extremely difficult to overcome and then require maintenance for a lifetime. But seeing as I’ve never struggled with a weight problem, it seems like it should be a piece of cake. Clearly I should realize this is wrong seeing that I do know how hard it is to actually lose weight.

And yet on some other level, I don’t ever expect ignorant people to educate themselves. I just brush it off and avoid them. But in no way is being ignorant less of a societal burden. And learning about something can’t be harder than controlling an addiction. Maybe it would be worse though if I had to accept that everyone was educated and still making terrible decisions.



  1. I think the big difference between obesity and most of the other examples listed in that post(mental illness, addiction, ignorance) is that those are all afflictions of the mind that directly renders people incapable of fixing themselves. The other one(lack of empathy) is not even related to personal health.

    Until someone can prove that being obese directly hinders cognitive skills, I don’t think any of those are valid analogies.

    • But while the others affect a person mentally, addicts, the ignorant and the mentally ill aren’t incapable of “fixing” the problem as much as they can. It just takes an extreme amount of determination and probably lifestyle changes to overcome their genetic predispositions. It also takes a significant amount of realization that I fully believe addicts, some of the ignorant, and some of the mentally ill can achieve. Similarly, obesity is highly influenced by genetics in addition to lifestyle. And while it doesn’t directly have to do with the mind, being overweight could lead to (or be caused by) larger mental issues – low self esteem, depression, etc. But taking that out of the picture… I don’t expect addicts who understand they have an addiction to suddenly be able to break their habit; I’m accepting of the fact that they have some intrinsic factor that makes it very very hard. But I do expect the overweight (who probably have terrible habits too) to suddenly get off their butt and exercise and cut out all junk food. I’m just not as accepting that they also probably have many factors working against them.

    • I don’t know… I’m still not convinced it’s a fair comparison.

      Even if you assume that everything is equal and it takes the exact same amount of determination/will to deal with all 4 problems, the fact that the other 3 directly distort the mind makes pulling together that same amount of determination so much harder.

      It’s like on one hand you’re expecting someone to climb a hill, while on the other hand you’re expecting someone to climb that hill with only one leg. You expect the first guy to make it, but probably wouldn’t be very critical if the latter didn’t.

      Can you think of a comparison where this discrepancy in expectation is true, but not related to a mental problem?

      Or on a similar note, if a mentally ill person was obese, would you still have the same expectation for him/her to lose weight?

  2. A big difference between a mental illness and obesity is that obesity can be measured. With a lot of mental illnesses the person with them doesn’t know they have the problem, and they can go undiagnosed for years. An obese person can have their BMI measured by a physician and you then know you are actually obese, at which point you can’t really deny it.

    With a mental illness genetics can play a role along with other things in your environment. I don’t think genetics actually cause you to be obese. I think the cause behind obesity is mainly bad habits which can be passed from parent to child just as easily as genes. However, bad habits can be fixed and it isn’t unrealistic to expect people to change their bad habits.

    • Genetics plays a major role in obesity. It’s just easier for some people to lose weight. It’s also easier for some people to eat whatever they want and not gain weight. And what happens when the mentally ill understand they need help and then refuse treatment because they think it changes who they are?

      • I don’t know if you can really make the claim that genetics play a “major” role in obesity…. Yes, your metabolism is genetic dependent, but in the end it comes almost entirely down to your lifestyle.

        I mean lets look at it scientifically: America was settled, what, 400 years ago? I’m willing to wager the majority of the people in the country do not have over 200 years of American ancestry. Which means that genetically, American are almost identical to their ancestors across sea. There definitely haven’t been enough time for an obesity gene to mutate and propagate across the country.

        But yet, compare obesity rate of American Caucasians to obesity rate among Europeans Caucasians? Both should have very similar genetic disposition for obesity, but yet Americans have almost 2-3 times the rate.

      • But what about alcoholics? Does genetics really play that much of a larger role for addicts? I mean, if you have alcoholism in your family history, it’s a good idea to avoid it. And if you keep your lifestyle in line with that choice, you probably won’t struggle with the addiction. But most people can have a few drinks, even on a regular basis and not have to worry about becoming an alcoholic.

        And similar to the addiction and avoiding triggers, I think Americans are faced with a lot more unhealthy choices than Europeans. People who are inclined to easily gain weight or overeat, probably should be avoiding fast food, etc. I personally don’t think twice about eating junk. I know, given my family, that I probably will never be overweight. And when you have unhealthy low-income options, it’s better for low-income people to eat those than not eat (though not eating would keep our country thinner). So it is a lifestyle choice in both cases. It’s just that unhealthy food and being lazy is so “normal” that it’s harder to avoid even though obesity is a much more easily realized problem.

      • But that’s exactly it isn’t it? Our expectation comes from what we expect people in general are capable of. So if someone in Europe is capable of fighting his genes to be obese, then why wouldn’t we expect Americans to be able to do it too? It’s not like fast food and being lazy doesn’t exist there. And the % of the population under the poverty line is about the same.

        Also, you say you eat junk, but have you actually met someone who’s obese but live a more healthy lifestyle than you? I’m sure they exist… but personally I’ve never met someone where that’s true.

        I think a lot of my expectation for obese people to get healthy is the believe that if they, at the very least, do what I do, then they would be a lot better off. Not perfect for sure, but definitely healthier.

      • Yes, fat Americans can fight obesity just like the Europeans. But potential addicts can fight addiction in similar ways to those who abstain. But I look at addicts, and I think of it as something that happened to them, not something they had a say in. Whereas how I view obesity, it has to be their fault; it would never “just happen”.

        And sadly I don’t know someone who lives more healthy and also obese, but I think that’s mostly because I hardly know any obese people. It’s one of my terrible biases.

      • Really? That is most definitely not how I see addicts. It’s almost entirely their fault in my mind, even more so than people that let themselves become obese, and much worst of a mistake.

        I just don’t expect them to fix themselves, because by the time they realize they need help, they’re barely working with 50% of their brain capacity.

  3. Is there really a genetic propensity to obesity? That seems like something that would self-select itself out. I can accept a genetic propensity to be overweight, but it’s a far cry from overweight to obese.

    Now, food addiction is different. The person is not genetically obese. They’re genetically predisposed to addiction and it happens to be food rather than crack. Although, it’s interesting that you never see a food addict that’s addicted to celery and apples and such.

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