Skinny Daily Post


JuJu says: Hey folks, meet New York Times’ Amy Harmon, writing here while working on a story and looking for your reactions. Write to her directly or comment below, or both! You can bet Jane and I will add our $.02… Opine, my lovelies. I will if you will….

Hi, I’m a reporter at the New York Times. I’m working on a story about how new information about genetics is increasingly altering our understanding of why we behave as we do in a number of areas. I’m looking for people to talk with about the recent news about a genetic connection to obesity. (see article below)

Do you think you have the gene? Does it help to explain why it might be hard for you to lose weight? I’d love to talk to someone who heard about the study and felt liberated to go out and eat whatever they wanted. I’m also looking for folks who might feel more hopeless about losing weight as a result. If you’re willing to share your reactions, please email me at, and include a phone number where I can reach you with follow-up questions.

Thanks a lot,
p.s. I’ve pasted in below an article on the study. I know this is not the first study to find a genetic predisposition for obesity, but it seems to be the most conclusive to date.

Amy Harmon
New York Times
(212) 556-1505

(From WEBMD)
Study: New Gene Clue On Obesity

April 13, 2006

by Miranda Hitti

(WebMD) One in 10 people has a gene variant pattern linked to obesity, a new study shows.

But the researchers who spotted that gene variant stop short of chalking obesity up to genetics. At this point, they just report an “association” between the gene variant and obesity.

In other words, the scientists found the gene variant among obese people. But itís not clear if those people would have been slimmer without the gene variant.

The study, published in Science, comes from researchers including Alan
Herbert, M.BChB., Ph.D., of the genetics and genomics department at Boston Universityís medical school.

Probing the Genes

Herbertís team focused on genetics and body mass index (BMI) in five large groups of people.

First, the researchers checked the DNA and BMI of nearly 700 people whose parents had participated in the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term study of heart health among people in Framingham, Mass.

Herbertís team found that when two copies of a particular gene variant were present, people had a higher BMI and were more likely to be obese. BMI is based on height and weight. A BMI of 30 or more is considered obese and a BMI of 25 or more is considered overweight.

But the researchers didnít stop there. They wanted to see if the same gene variant cropped up in other studies of obesity, or if their finding had been a fluke.

Next Steps

The researchers repeated their analysis in four other groups, including almost 4,000 people of Western European ancestry, more than 2,600 whites from Poland and the United States, nearly 900 blacks living in Maywood, Ill., and more than 2,700 participants in the long-term Nurses Health Study.

The same gene variant was linked to obesity in three of those four groups, prompting the researchers to note a “consistent association” between the gene variant and obesity.

The exception was the Nurses Health Study, which didnít show the same
pattern. Those participants may have had “a different BMI distribution Ö or differences in environment and lifestyle,” write Herbert and colleagues.

How Common Is the Gene Variant?

Ten percent of people have this particular gene variant pattern, Herbert and colleagues write.

If their estimate is correct, it doesnít account for all obesity. Among U.S. adults, 32 percent are obese and 70 percent are overweight or obese, the CDC recently reported.

Other gene variants are probably also associated with obesity, Herbertís team notes. The gene variant they tracked is located near the INSIG2 gene, which is involved in fat metabolism and has been studied as a possible influence on obesity in mice and humans.

What about diet and exercise? Those topics werenít part of Herbertís study, so thereís no proof that participantsí obesity was solely due to the gene variant.

SOURCES: Herbert, A. Science, April 14, 2006; Vol. 312: pp. 279-283. WebMD Medical News: “Obesity Epidemic Balloons to New Girth.” News release,Science. News release, Harvard School of Public Health

Read WebMD Article Here

21 thoughts on “NY Times Reporter on Genetics Wants Help

  1. Mercury says:

    First off, I’ll say that emotionally, I don’t like being told that I’m automatically going to have a hard time, regardless of what kind of hard time it may be. I’m left-handed and have a variety of sleeping problems, and my friends are constantly sending me articles that link both of these conditions to early death. It’s a wonder I’m here to write this at all.

    So, given my bias, I’m going to say… I don’t plan to give this study any weight, as it were (ha!). I think the obvious thing to do is to look at America’s obesity levels in comparison to other first world countries, and to where we (and they) were fifty years ago. Our genetic stock hasn’t changed, but our waistlines have. Something is going on outside of our DNA.

    Do I believe that some genes can be linked to obesity in certain cases? Sure. Do I believe that you can be genetically pre-disposed to developing diabetes, heart disease, or cancer? Sure. There are most likely genes linked to low BMIs, some to anti-social behavior, some to musical brilliance, ad infinitum. Do I think that’s why most people (including myself) are overweight? Probably not.

  2. Cat says:

    One and all…I probably won’t e-mail Harmon with this, since it’s not what she’s looking for, but I kind of wanted to opine to you all. Having observed my husband (not to mention myself and various other souls who struggle with weight) I’m willing to buy the genetic predisposition. Virtually without question, really. My husband weighed over ten pounds at birth and has never NOT been over the recommended weight for his height and age. Unless his mother’s milk was strangely high in sugar and fat, there’s a genetic predisposition there.

    But I’d like to add a quotation which pretty much sums up my reaction to such findings, at least after a few minutes of gnashing and wailing. This quotation is the (absolutely brilliant, IMHO) summation of one Richard Weinberg, and it appeared in American Psychologist in 1989. Despite the date, it’s still pretty brilliant. It refers to intelligence, but it applies equally well to weight.

    “There is a myth that if a behavior or characteristic is genetic, it cannot be changed. Genes do not fix behavior. Rather, they establish a range of possible reactions to the range of possible experiences that environments can provide. Environments can also affect whether the full range of gene reactivity is expressed.”

    So? So I know I have a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol, pernicious anemia, and probably high blood pressure: the history’s there, and my own indicators already confirm it. So I’m willing–VERY willing–to believe that I likewise have a predisposition to obesity, for the same reasons. But is that a reason to close up the treadmill, drop the salad and never go back? Quite the contrary! JUST the contrary, in fact. Is it “fair”? Maybe not; but it’s not exactly “fair” to the physically handicapped that I was born without brain damage, either, or with all my limbs. As genetic dice throws go, I got off pretty easy.

    Butis it a reason not to beat myself up if the treadmill and the salads don’t produce the result they might in someone else? That, I’ll buy. Nature/nurture: I think that debate’s picture is in the dictionary next to the phrase “false dichotomy.”

  3. Emily says:

    I think genetic predispositions are just that – a predisposition. I will never be naturally, effortlessly skinny. I know what happens when I eat what I think my body wants to — I end up at 250 lbs, with my knees going and insulin reistance at age 28. (And a glance at a family photo shows that this is likely somehow genetically influenced – I don’t really need a fancy study to confirm it for me.)

    I also know that if I keep a really accurate food journal so that my head gets involved in monitoring what I eat (not just my stomach and my taste buds), I’m not destined to stay at 250 lbs. I can slowly move down as I incorporate feedback from my data (the journal). I was inspired to try this because of JuJu’s original Skinny Daily posts, and it remains true.

    Refusing to use additional tools to make up for my natural lack of appetite-monitoring would make no more sense than a sight-impaired person refusing glasses / contacts. I can rail against how unfair it is, or I can get on with compensating for my defecits and being grateful for my blessings.

  4. Jonathan says:

    I’m with Cat on this one. My dad was an alcoholic and there is some research that indicates a possible link between male offspring of male alcoholics having a genetic predisposition for the disease. I, however, do not drink alcohol or abuse drugs. Perhaps that’s precisely BECAUSE I learned about the link early on and I was determined not to repeat my Dad’s difficult life. Isn’t that the best part about being a human being? We have a brain and we can make choices!

  5. Greta says:

    I do think that some people must be genetically predisposed to obesity. I know that I am more genetically disposed to being overweight than some other people that I know. Still, I am better off than yet some other people. My sister and I might have ended up with the same genes (or maybe not who knows?). Her top weight at 5’3″ was 325 and my top weight at 5’7″ was in the high 220’s. However, we have approached life differently. I’ve been an active exerciser even when at my heaviest and she’s a couch potato. I finally switched to eating veggies, beans, whole grains, fruits and she’s still eating junk, so now there’s an even bigger difference in our weights. If I have the unlucky “fat genes” then I have been reasonably successful at fighting the fat (I am no longer obese). If she has the fat gene, then she just gave up at the beginning and went with it.

  6. Debbie says:

    Genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger. We have a lot more control over our destiny than we think.

    Do I have the gene? Who knows? My whole family has a tendency to slight overweight, but I’m the only one who really ballooned up.

    But I’ve learned that my genetic makeup is such that if I eat right, watch portions, and EXERCISE, everything normalizes. I can hold a normal weight relatively easy. All my bloodwork numbers (mostly) go back to where they are supposed to be.

    Bottom line is, our bodies have not evolved enough (if they ever will) to function properly for “modern life.” We have to move our butts, minimize simple carbs and bad fats, eat closer to the earth.

    It doesn’t matter if you have a genetic predisposition to obesity . . . I’d be surprised if most of us DIDN’T. We are, after all, descendants of folks who had to survive extreme prehistoric conditions.

    The ones who couldn’t sock away much fat on their bodies? Their lines mostly didn’t survive.

    I don’t see where this discovery changes ANYTHING.

  7. Sharon says:

    Interesting study but I’m not sure I buy it. Too many important variables that aren’t really addressed in the report.

    My family is obese. My father and 2 uncles weighed in the 350 – 400 lb range. Aunt 5’2″ and over 200 lbs. Mom 5’5″ and hovers around 200lbs. My 3 sisters and myself struggle with weight issues. I have recently lost approximately 65 lbs and have 35 to go before I have a normal BMI.

    It would certainly simplify the problem if I could blame it on a gene. I believe there is more involved, though. Family gatherings ALWAYS center around food. We don’t participate in any sort of physical activity together. It’s always good food and conversation. So if the study is correct, I could assume that the reason we choose that kind of socialization is related to a gene? I’m not sold on that. Certainly not based on the WebMD article.

  8. JuJu says:

    An interesting aspect of the reporting on this story is the number of times you see assumptions that this genetic variation is a disadvantage. Okay, it’s a disadvantage NOW. But only became so recently, and is really only a disadvantage where life is easy and food is plentiful. So we’re genetically designed to star on Survivor. Or live on an island where the fishing is lousy.

    The researchers themselves say this variation is ancient. They say that the people who have this genetic trait are often overweight. But the reporting goes like this: The San Francisco Chronical article calls it an “aberration,” the ABC piece a “misspelling,” of DNA, CNN a “broken gene,” all suggesting the genetic code is mutated or broken in someway, leading to weight gain. Is this the researchers’ idea? That the variation is a break of some kind? Or are we talking about blue eyes/green eyes?

    My questions for the researchers: Wouldn’t this genotype have been more than benign, but actually have been an advantage in times when food was scarce? That’s my assumption, of course. But the rush to judgement about the value of this variation feels as if it has more to do with fashion than with fact.

  9. stretchy says:

    I agree with Jonathan

    Coming from a family of a scary number of Diabetics (who eat or ate too much of things like pie sweet rolls, breads, etc..)

    I felt if I stayed away from the baked goods & kept fit, I could do something for myself.

    Or I could eat all the bad foods freely … saying Diabetes was for me, inevitable.

    I had a choice.

    I stay away from sugar and control myself with breads etc… it is no great sacrifice when I see many of my cousins younger than me suffering terribly with the disease and still eating & eating things that are off-limits for them.

    As Jonathan said, We have brains. I have to admit I think about health often when I am reading a restaurant menu, and that turns me off to many bad choices, just thinking about health.

  10. Quinn says:

    Remember the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? War, Famine, Pestilence and Death? Anybody who has ever studied history knows those four are always around. And my entire family has been on intimate acquaintance with the so-and-so’s for generations. We have inherited tendncies to agression, which has allowed us to survive wars of all kinds. To autoimmune disorders (allergies, hypothyroidism, RA) which indicate an extremely strong immune system, neccessary for fighting off diseases of all kinds. And to obesity, yeah. My family, if they aren’t hyperactive and/or out earning their bread by the sweat of their brow, pack on the pounds as soon as they have access to plenty of food whenever they want it.

    As JuJu and others have said, this “obesity gene” is a survival mechanism, leftover from thousands upon thousands of years of very hard times.

    And the study estimates that perhaps 10% of us all on earth have it? Hmmmm. Have any of you been keeping up with the studies on the Earth’s environment? It seems planet Earth can’t actually support the 6.5 billion or so of us currently here. 10% of 6.5 billion is 6.5 million, a much better figure a far as the planet’s resources go.


    Well. It’s a beautiful day. I’m going out for a walk. ūüôā

  11. Nikhila says:

    Hello Amy,

    I have been obese with a BMI somewhere just above 41. I’ve spent most of my life around 33, and now, I’m at a 28 looking to lose another 20 pounds to squeak in just under the 25 max. This news about gene variants in the obese means nothing to me in the here and now. I am overweight. I have been extremely obese, mostly obese and somewhat overweight. Chubby is a word I heard often, fat is one I mostly said to myself.

    So what if there is a correlation? As if I didn’t already know that some people find it easier and others hard to have healthy bodies? As if I didn’t know that some people are ‘natural’ athletes with physical abilities that far outstrip the norm. In the end, genes only matter so much because every day I’ve had to deal with the difficulty of taking up too much space to fit anywhere comfortably in my family and in our society. A gene correlation won’t get me off the hook, nor will it change the physics of my reality–I eat more than a 130 pound version of me would need.

    There are PLENTY of reasons why I eat more than I need, now you’ve given me another one. Personally, I find the emotional coping mechanism that food presents me, the almost addict like pleasure it gives me, far more compelling than a gene possiblity. So no, this news won’t change anything for me–I won’t run out and eat everything in sight, nor will I find myself immeasurably depressed. The news changes nothing.


  12. clover says:

    I’ll go on step farther and say that sometimes a choice isn’t a choice. This is funny coming from me, someone who has lost over 100 pounds and kept it off for 3 years now. I truly believe that it is impossible for most people to control their weight. I feel extremely lucky to have been able to address my health problems as well as I have but I never assume that others can be so successful if only they try hard enough. There is overwhelming evidence that losing weight and keeping it off is not do-able for most people. To have people who have lost a lot of weight tout diet and exercise as the cure-all is like having lottery winners to lecture on personal finance. So yes, I think it’s hopeless for most people. Is it related to ‘a’ fat gene? How about all of ’em? I think most animals with unlimited access to food would become fat.

  13. juju says:

    Dang you guys, you make my day!

  14. jonquil says:

    I’m having a big problem with this on a lot of different levels, so I’ll take these questions one by one. But first, I’d like to point out that an “association” between the presence of a gene and a certain condition proves nothing. Blues eyes are often associated with blond hair, but blond hair does not “cause” blue eyes. Even a statistical correlation does not prove cause and effect, as any scientist knows. But on to the questions:

    “Do you think you have the gene?”

    It’s impossible to look at yourself and “see” a gene. Even if there is a lot of obesity in your family, it might be due to dysfunctional relationships, or thyroid problems, or PCOS, just for instance. Not necessarily this particular gene. And that’s so obvious you wouldn’t think it even needed to be said.

    “Does it help to explain why it might be hard for you to lose weight?”

    Objection– leading the witness. Not every last person on earth finds it “hard” to lose weight. Many people do, particularly where there is some underlying medical condition, but not all. But we don’t have much info on the ones who find it easier, perhaps because “people who are successful– particularly those who lose weight on their own– tend not to wind up in research studies from which the statistics are derived.” (The quote is from “Thin for Life,” p. 24, a great book profiling successful maintainers.)

    “Iíd love to talk to someone who heard about the study and felt liberated to go out and eat whatever they wanted.”

    This one’s a bombshell, reinforcing the stereotype of fat people as gluttons who will scarf up everything in sight, given the slightest excuse. Which contradicts the idea that obesity is caused by genetics, and “can’t be helped!” Would you like fries with your double bind?

    “Iím also looking for folks who might feel more hopeless about losing weight as a result.”

    Again, leading the witness. And notice the implication: she doesn’t want to hear from people who are still hopeful after finding out “their obesity is genetic.” As if that theory had never gone round the boards before.

    What we have here is a reporter looking for bite-sized quotes to fit conclusions drawn before she started writing the piece. Maybe her boss told her to take this angle, who knows.

    I’m feeling hopeless all right– hopeless about the state of medical reporting in America!

  15. Jeanne says:

    Do I think I have efficient fat storing genes? Yup. Does that mean I’m doomed to be obese? Nope. My body maintains a steady weight when I balance my calories in with my calories out.

    Does it mean that at a healthy weight I look really nicely cushioned and curvy, carrying more fat than some other folk?

    Well, I think so :).

    It’s my use of food as an emotional cushion is a danger to my health. It’s easy for me to stay at a healthy weight (not a FASHIONABLE weight) when I don’t turn my anger and frustrations inward, when I remember that my being lovable and lovely and a worthy person doesn’t depend on someone else’s definition of beauty or achievement.

    And I don’t like the possibility that somewhere down the road someone will decide that I have the wrong kind of genes. Maybe for insurance or employment purposes?

    Knowing how our lifestyle and our genetic patterns interact might be very useful someday; I hope we can learn to use any of that info to enhance our lives while accepting our infinite variations with kindness and joy instead of shame and despair.

  16. Debbi Young says:

    JuJu wrote: “But the rush to judgement about the value of this variation feels as if it has more to do with fashion than with fact.”

    I think it has more to do with pharmaceuticals than with fact. If researchers can come up with some factor for which a pill or potion can be manufactured and sold … well, just think of all who stand to profit.

    And why is it this genetic discovery has surfaced at a time in our economic history when labor-saving devices abound, work means sitting in a car or at a desk and leisure is more of the same?

  17. Tom Barrett says:

    I heard it said “Genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger”.

  18. shine says:

    What Jonquil said!

  19. Lisa says:

    Go Jonquil!!

    We rule in favor of the defendant, who refuses to be abused and restricted by misleading medical testimony – case DISMISSED!

  20. clover says:

    We need a fat pill. Just because they haven’t come up with a good one yet doesn’t mean we should stop hoping for one. It’ll be a badly needed medical miracle by the time it arrives. Most people no longer believe abstinence is morally superior to birth control (for married adults,anyway). Fat is not a moral issue. Taking a pill wouldn’t be ‘cheating’.

    Every fat person knows they should eat less and get more exercise. The problem isn’t the knowing, it’s the doing. I guess I’m not willing to hold anybody accountable for not being able to do the right thing for their health. I believe they would if they could.

  21. Greta says:

    I am missing your wonderful daily essays while you continue to give the NY Times columnist your space for 3 days. I’d like to see our daily essays reappear in this space.

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