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Thursday, 31 July 2014

Obesity: is it all in the genes?

by Tim Caulfield
Note: A version of this piece originally appeared in Policy Options. For the full link, visit
We have been subjected to years of obesity-related headlines, and the news almost always seems to be discouraging. Obesity has become a public health crisis that gets worse all the time, seemingly immune to public policy fixes. It is no surprise, then, that there is an intensifying search for a technological, pharmaceutical or, at least, biomedically oriented answer. The search for an “obesity gene” is a big part of the -cutting-edge, science-will-save-us ethos. Articles like the Globe and Mail’s 2008 “Now you can blame those extra pounds on the ‘ice age’ gene” reinforce the emerging message that we should be look to genetic-based solutions to fix our public health crisis. This is a mistake, for many reasons.

Three things you need to know about obesity and genes:

1.  The predictive power of genetics, at least to date, has not been terribly impressive.

2.  The relationship between genes and weight gain is tremendously complex, and studies have shown there is little evidence to suggest genes “could have a beneficial effect on behavior”.

3.  Few Canadians eat a balanced diet, exercise enough or are even aware of how many calories they do or should consume.

Three myths about obesity and genes:

Myth #1:  Our genes have changed over the past few decades; our environment has.

Reality:  The list of possible contributors to weight gain include our sleep habits, the microbes living in our gut, whether our parents smoked, our birth weight, the amount of TV we watch, the type of food we eat and have access to, our socio-economic conditions, and so on.

Myth #2:  Exciting new research will save us from this epidemic.

Reality:  We should not let the excitement surrounding genetic research and personalized medicine distract us from the significant and wide-ranging social change that is required to make a real difference.

Myth #3:  Well then, isn’t research on the genetics of obesity useless?

Reality:  Not at all. In addition to simply allowing us to gain a greater understanding the biology behind weight gain (a worthy goal on its own), it may help to inform future interventions. But we are looking at a public health problem across a broad swath of the population. It is absurd to concentrate on our genes to reverse an obesity epidemic.

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. He has been the  Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta since 1993. Over the past several years he has been involved in a variety of interdisciplinary research endeavours that have allowed him to publish over 250 articles and book chapters. He is a Fellow of the Trudeau Foundation, a Health Senior Scholar with the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research and the Principal Investigator for a number of large interdisciplinary projects that explore the ethical, legal and health policy issues associated with a range of topics, including stem cell research, genetics, patient safety, the prevention of chronic disease, obesity policy, the commercialization of research, complementary and alternative medicine and access to health care. Professor Caulfield is and has been involved with a number of national and international policy and research ethics committees, including: Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee; Genome Canada’s Science Advisory Committee; the Ethics and Public Policy Committee for International Society for Stem Cell Research; and the Federal Panel on Research Ethics. He has won numerous academic awards and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.  He writes frequently for the popular press on a range of health and science policy issues and is the author of The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness (Penguin 2012).  

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