Tag Archives: media portrayal

Weekly Links #4 — Obesity and Another Excuse for Eating all the Cookies

It’s Thursday. Time for weekly links! Only three links this week, because I we’re getting heavy on some stuff. Sorry for the lack of posts this week. There’s a big one coming tomorrow morning and the vegetarian adventure has been postponed to saturday this week. Hang in there. I know you’re excited.

1. “Fat People Are Not Our Enemy” This article talks about a lot of things. It’s main point is that we need to stop hating on ‘fat’ people, citing an article that found overweight people to be just as healthy as their skinny counterparts. A couple things here, from me. First, being a little bit overweight is not necessarily a bad thing. Having a little bit of fat can help the body be more resilient, help it survive difficult times. That is not an endorsement to gain weight, though!

Second, and I agree with the article on this, BMI is a terrible way to measure obesity. The nice thing about BMI is that it is easy to calculate. Therefore, it’s very useful to get a general idea on the population from a public health standpoint. However, easy to calculate also means a lot of error. For example, when I was in some of the best shape of my life during high school, calculating BMI put me at the border of overweight and obese. I most definitely was not! BMI oversimplifies and it doesn’t take into account muscle mass, instead using a simple height vs weight set-up. However, the article claims that our reliance on BMI has changed what we consider healthy. I would disagree with that.

How many people do you know judge health based on BMI (minus healthcare workers)? I’m going to guess not many. Most people can tell the difference between an obese person, someone who is an unhealthy level of overweight, and someone who is maybe overweight but still healthy. Maybe the war on fat has gone too far. Discrimination is never a good thing. But I would not say that science thinks being too heavy is good for you, as the article concludes.

2. “Obesity in America: How the Social Norm on Weight Has Shifted” In sticking with the obesity discussion, this article talks about people’s views on obesity. Most interesting for me was the high numbers of people who skew themselves downward on the obesity scale. (Note: I don’t know if they used BMI or not for the polls). Also, science in this one claims that up to 80% of chronic diseases can be linked to weight. I can understand people’s confusion with science. I’m going to guess the number in actuality comes in below 80%, but I’m also going to believe this side of things a little more than the claim that heavy is good.

Anyways, I love that this article emphasizes the need for bottom-up change. Being honest, I don’t put much hope in top-down change these days. Too much stupid bickering and partisanship for anything to get done. So any changes are going to have to come from below. The community example is nice, and it would be cool to see this pop up in other places too. Good article all around.

3.“Westerners ‘programmed to eat junk food'” Back to busting DNA articles! I’m not arguing with the study. It’s very possible, especially the survival side of things. BUT, the title again! I’ve found that titles tend to be very sensationalist since I’ve started this blog, usually exaggerating the actual claims in the article. Yes, westerners may crave foods that are less healthy due to genetic heritage. But it doesn’t MAKE people eat the unhealthy foods. I crave sugary foods. Constantly. Terrible sweet tooth. Is this because of my ‘switch’? Maybe, but I don’t eat sugary foods all the time. There’s this useful thing called consciousness which allows me to choose what I do and don’t eat. The article doesn’t touch on this at all, mostly just quoting the scientists. Who, I should add, go no further than mentioning that it could control craving and explaining it’s origin. Not saying we are programmed to eat junk food. Saying we might have a genetic based desire for junk food. Programmed is a very different thing. Programmed to crave versus programmed to eat is also very different. Whew! I’m done now.

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The Media, Genetic Fatalism, and Why It’s Wrong

This week, three articles came out dealing with genetics. These articles deal with the heart of Shane vs. Genetics–are genetics an end-all. Here are the links:

Two of the articles are referencing the same study, but the articles are portrayed in a similar manner.

First, let’s look at the titles. All three make broad implications simply with their headlines. “Even the Long-Lived…” makes it seem like leading a healthy lifestyle has no bearing on how long someone lives. “104-year Old ‘Super Ager’…” references genetics right in the headline, attributing her old age to her genes. “Study: People May Be…” is talking about math instead, but also links math abilities to genetics. If anyone was to look at just the headlines, or skim the articles, the takeaway would be that genetics is of singular importance.

Now, let’s focus on the old age articles. I am not trying to dispute the study that the articles are based on. In fact, I’m sure there are people out there that lucked out as far as genes go. I don’t doubt that some people’s genetics would allow them to live longer or get away with unhealthy behaviors. Everyone knows one of those people who eats whatever they want and doesn’t exercise, and yet never gains a pound. It’s a fact of life. No, my problem with the articles is that both barely reference the rest of us. The CNN article is devoted to how genetics trumps lifestyle in terms of old age for these people, with one paragraph mentioning off-hand how lifestyle is important for the rest of us. The Time article does a better job discuss limitations to the study and concludes with advice to everyone else, promoting healthy living.

The math article is devoted to an idea of inborn “number sense”, which may or may not relate to math achievement later on. Maybe this is the case, maybe it isn’t. My problem is that the article reduces math abilities down to a genetic issue. There is no nurture side in this article, only nature. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers does a nice job of arguing for other factors in math ability than genetics. Certainly putting in lots of work and making a commitment to learning math can allow one to overcome a lack of “number sense”. It boils down to the same problem as the old age articles. Yes, some people do get genetics that allow them to naturally be better at things. But it doesn’t mean that those who aren’t lucky can’t achieve the same thing.

People are already to willing to write themselves off, trapped by their genetics. Articles like these only provide support for their fatalism. Rarely are there articles about someone beating their genetics. It’s just assumed that they didn’t get the ‘bad’ genes. So here’s an example of someone who did.

Jim Fixx. He’s famous for kick-starting the jogging movement in the 1970’s. Fixx was an overweight magazine editor who quit smoking, started jogging, and lost a lot of weight. He wrote a book called The Complete Book of Running. Fixx died at the age of 52–from a heart attack. This seems like a classic example of bad genetics winning, and it has been drawn up that way before. But that doesn’t look deep enough.

Fixx’s father, Calvin, had a heart attack at 35. Calvin Fixx died from a heart attack at 43. Jim lived to 52. He probably could have lived even longer if he would have seen a cardiologist, something he refused to do. Yes, Jim Fixx died earlier than most people–from the same problems that plagued his father. But he changed his lifestyle at 35, got healthier, and managed to add roughly 9 years to his life.

Genetics can be beat. We just have to start looking at it the right way.

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