Filed Under: Big Fat Lies

Genes Make Obesity An Individual Problem

That diet plays a role in human health and disease is indisputable. And despite the drastically overstated numbers of overweight people in America, and the make-believe counts of obesity-related deaths, many Americans could stand to lose a few pounds. But the United States is not an overweight nation. Rather, some of the individuals who live here are too heavy. And individuals each have their own reasons — and bear the ultimate responsibility — for being that way. That’s something food cops and their trial lawyer buddies, eager to impose a one-size-fits-all “solution” on the American diet, fail to appreciate — or willfully ignore.

Common sense finds a partner in genetic science, which tells us that there’s yet another reason to consider obesity a highly individual problem, unresponsive to universal solutions. According to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA): “It’s also quite likely that, within our generation, genomics and proteomics will give us the knowledge we need to understand which foods may be particularly risky to us, so that we can make specific, individualized adjustments in our diets to prevent some serious diseases.

Particularly risky to us.” “Specific, individualized adjustments.” Why should everyone pay a Twinkie Tax if twinkies aren’t a problem for everyone?

The influence of diet on health depends on an individual’s genetic makeup,” argues Bruce Grierson in The New York Times. “Genetic variations … help explain why two people can eat exactly the same diet and respond very differently to it — one maintaining his weight, for example, and the other ballooning.”

Some people can eat 4,000 calories per day and never gain an ounce. They certainly don’t need Michael Jacobson in charge of their dinner plate. Those who aren’t as lucky, meanwhile, have the scale and the mirror as convenient mechanisms to see if they’re eating too much. And genomics may soon provide a third mechanism.

Grierson paints this picture:

A trip to the diet doc, circa 2013. You prick your finger, draw a little blood and send it, along with a $100 fee, to a consumer genomics lab in California. There, it’s passed through a mass spectrometer, where its proteins are analyzed. It is cross-referenced with your DNA profile. A few days later, you get an e-mail message with your recommended diet for the next four weeks. It doesn’t look too bad: lots of salmon, spinach, selenium supplements, bread with olive oil. Unsure of just how lucky you ought to feel, you call up a few friends to see what their diets look like. There are plenty of quirks. A Greek co-worker is getting clams, crab, liver and tofu — a bounty of B vitamins to raise her coenzyme levels. A friend in Chicago, a second-generation Zambian, has been prescribed popcorn, kale, peaches in their own juice and club soda. (This looks a lot like the hypertension-reducing “Dash” diet, which doesn’t work for everyone but apparently works for him.) He is allowed some chicken, prepared in a saltless marinade, hold the open flame — and he gets extra vitamin D because there’s not enough sunshine for him at his latitude. (His brother’s diet, interestingly enough, is a fair bit different.) Your boss, who seems to have won some sort of genetic lottery, gets to eat plenty of peanut butter, red meat and boutique cheeses.

The FDA argues that “diet-related health problems are more a matter of unhealthy diets than unhealthy foods.” We certainly concur that there are no inherently unhealthy or “bad” foods. Even CSPI’s Michael Jacobson gives you permission to have fettuccine alfredo once a year. But diet-related health problems are also the result of an individual’s unhealthy diet for an individual’s unhealthy genes. In other words, there are no inherently unhealthy diets.

Memo to John Banzhaf: Science is not on the side of fast-food lawsuits. It never was.

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