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Is Obesity Genetic? A Reply to PumpkinPerson and Robert Lindsay

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I come across a lot of ridiculous articles from PumpkinPerson, but this has to be one of the most ridiculous. He writes:

Identical twin studies show that obesity has a heritability of almost 80%. Although I generally lean towards nature in most nature-nurture debates, I’ve always had a problem with the idea that obesity is highly genetic, and thus enjoyed this epic rant by blogger Robert Lindsay:

It is 80% genetic[?]

That is why you have whole tribes in South America where not one person has ever been fat.

That is why you have whole towns in Melanesia with 1000’s of people where not one person is fat.

There are fat people in the cities of Solomon Islands. In the study I read, the only man who was fat was one who had gone off to the city for a while and ate salt and processed, packaged food. Do you realize that if you did a genetic study of the fatties in Melanesia, you would find that wonderful 80% “genetic” link you guys are shouting about?

That is why the fatness and obesity rate has exploded in the US and much of the rest of the world. Because it’s 80% genetic!

I do not believe that fatsos act just like the rest of us. Ever known a blimp who ate like a bird? Me either.

I dunno about you, but I have never seen a fat person who wasn’t stuffing their face all the time with lousy food. They are always in restaurants. Always going out to eat. If you go to a restaurant, look around at all the fat people. Those people are fat because fat people like to eat out all the time and restaurant food is fattening. Fat people love to eat. Have you ever noticed that?

It’s 80 percent heritable in first world countries. Obviously the heritability will be lower in the third world. Clearly in first-world countries we have an overabundance of food. We don’t know what to do with it. So instead of having the opposite problem (not enough food) we now have too much food and this is what caused weight to increase (along with added sugars processed carbs).

Look at Melanesia—they still eat an ancestral diet. I can’t tell if Lindsay is being serious or not. He’s comparing people who still eat their ancestral diet to people who live in first-world countries and eat a Western diet. There’s no comparison there. If you want to see why people aren’t fat nor have the same diseases at the same rates (they are low to nonexistent in places like that) read Agriculture and Diseases of Civilization

This is the study that’s being referred to Elks et al 2012. The heritability of BMI is between .75 and .82. Again: this is in first-world countries.

PP then says:

In fact just the other day, I was at the home of someone who was so incredibly fat I thought “it must be genetic.” And then just as I was leaving his house, I noticed a huge empty box of pizza in the kitchen.

Binge eating and obesity both have a heritable component (Bulk, Sullivan and Kendler, 2003). Further, to quote Gary Taubes from Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It:

“So maybe the answers to be found are in the integration of factors – starting with the physiological, metabolic, and genetic ones and letting them lead us to the environmental triggers. Because the one thing we know for sure is that the laws of thermodynamics, true as they always are, tell us nothing about why we get fat or why we take in more calories than we expend while it’s happening. (emphasis mine) (Taubes, 2011: pg 74, excerpt from Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It)

PP says:

The fatness itself or the tendency to engage in behaviors that cause fatness such as ordering large pizzas? So while obesity might technically be nearly 80% genetic, the statistic is misleading because it’s not directly genetic in the same was as height is.

If you don’t eat enough, nor get the right nutrients, you don’t hit your genetic height. If you don’t eat enough you don’t hit your genetic weight.

I don’t get why studies like this get generalized to the whole population. This study was done in first-world countries and so this only applies to first-world countries. You’d think that people who think they know science would know that studies are only applicable for the cohort and people they are done on. Guess not.

Of course I don’t deny obesity has some direct genetic component. Some people gain weight a lot easier than others and for some people, it’s virtually impossible to lose weight no matter how well they eat, though this is rare.

Of course some people gain weight easier than others. Some people lose weight easier than others. Much of the biological opposition to sustained weight loss is due to the hormone leptin (Rosenbaum et al, 2010). The more fat you have in your body, the more leptin you have. Moreover, the longer you are at a certain weight, the more likely it is that is your bodyweight set-point and thus you can only move up or down at around a range of 10 to 15 pounds. Also see this quote from neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt’s book Why Diets Make Us Fat (see her Ted Talk here):

Like nearsightedness, environmental influences on weight also mostly affect the genetically vulnerable, although we understand the details of the process in only rare cases. Fitness gains on a standardized exercise program vary from one person to another largely because of differences in their genes. When identical twins, men in their early twenties, were fed an extra thousand calories per day for about three months, each pair showed similar weight gains . In contrast, the gain varied across twin pairs, ranging from nine to twenty-nine pounds, even though the caloric imbalance was the same for everyone. An individual’s genes also influence weight loss. When another group of identical twins burned a thousand more calories per day through exercise while maintaining a stable food intake in an in-patient facility, their losses ranged from two to eighteen pounds and were even more similar within twin pairs than weight gain. (Aamodt, 2016 pg. 138)

The cold, hard truth is that dieting doesn’t have a good track record. See Mann et al (2007) here. People don’t understand the bodies’ biological processes and assume something is easy while being ignorant to how the body reacts under caloric deprivation. This wouldn’t happen if people actually had some knowledge of human physiology. Something that PP and RL lack. They are speaking about a complex problem than they’re too ignorant to really know about.  

PP then says:

“Now I have no doubt that if that person has an identical twin raised apart, he too is extremely fat, and thus fatness technically has a high heritability, but what exactly is genetic here?”

Would the identical twin be raised in an obesogenic environment? If so, there’s a high chance that, yes he’d be fat too.

It’s also true that most people who lose weight end up gaining it back, but that’s because they end up returning to their compulsive eating habits.

Most people do end up gaining it back but it has to do with biological and physiological processes; obesity has nothing to do with willpower. You can’t willpower your way to extra weight loss.

People should read a few papers and books to see some data and facts before they write what “sounds good” in their head. These two clearly have no idea what they’re talking about and clearly talking from emotion and what sounds good.

Also read Are There Genetic Causes for Obesity?



  1. I don’t think anybody’s ever explained the math of heritability to Lindsay or PP. Heritability is the proportion of variance in a given trait attributable to genetics; within-group and between-group heritability are two distinct (but similar) concepts.

    Lewontin admittedly did a good job explaining this. If you uniformly apply a nutritional deficit to a given population of corn but not another genetically identical population, then within-group differences in height attributable to genetics will be up to 100% heritable but the proportion of the between-group difference attributable to genetics would be 0%. Stalk 1 in Group A is taller than Stalk 2 in Group A thanks to genetics, but stalks in Group A are taller than stalks in Group B because of environment.

    I’d also like to see them try to explain where Australian Aboriginals got all the “fat genes” from and why they apparently got these genes at the same time that beer and potatoes showed up.


    • RaceRealist says:

      Well said.

      Read Neil Sesardic’s book Making Sense of Heritability and his article Philosophy of Science That Ignores Science: Race, IQ, and Heritability. He brings up Lewontin’s plant heritability argument that he used on Jensen.

      I’d also like to see them try to explain where Australian Aboriginals got all the “fat genes” from and why they apparently got these genes at the same time that beer and potatoes showed up.

      Exactly. It’s like this for all populations that go off of an ancestral diet. But people speak about things they know nothing of because it sounds right in their heads. Things don’t work like that.

      See O’dea (1984). Aborigines taken off of a Western diet and introduced back to a more ancestral diet lost mostly all their blood markers denoting T2DM in 7 weeks! This is more evidence of the environmental effect of fat gain and obesity caused by constant insulin spikes and Western diets that cause it.

      This is noticed in all populations that go off an ancestral diet to one that mimicks a more Westernized diet. People will understand that soon enough.


    • Yeah, that’s the funny thing. The evidence I linked, which falsified Lindsay’s assertion, was from 2007. Lindsay’s post insisting that Melanesians don’t have many obese people (and that that was a genetic thing) was from 2015. He shoulda Googled it, but the thing is, he didn’t.

      Here’s a Google search for “obesity new guinea” that he could’ve done on May 2 of 2015, when he wrote the post. The information was a click away.


    • RaceRealist says:

      Here’s a Google search for “obesity new guinea” that he could’ve done on May 2 of 2015, when he wrote the post. The information was a click away.

      The evidence is startling that Western diets cause numerous deleterious effects. Diets as close to ancestral as possible (without going overboard) are what is best for having good health and blood markers.

      People just assume they think they know what they’re talking about, using their emotions because it sounds good in their heads. However, reality and human biology, nutrition, metabolism and physiology are much more complicated than the simplified thoughts they have on the matter.


    • Muh Paleo Diet. Makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, I grant.

      Would be a fun thought experiment to try to find a nutrient or food group or whatever that worked out well for us even though we weren’t adapted for it. Can’t think of any off the top of my head.


    • RaceRealist says:

      We are selected for past environments; not any possible future ones. So, it stands to reason, that diets that are as close as possible to what our ancestors ate would be most beneficial to mitigate the diseases of civilization and rising obesity rates in the world.

      Would be a fun thought experiment to try to find a nutrient or food group or whatever that worked out well for us even though we weren’t adapted for it. Can’t think of any off the top of my head.

      I can’t either and I doubt any exist. I’m happy to be proven wrong though.


    • Dark chocolate for anyone other than Native Americans. Cinnamon for anybody outside of the Orient. Olive oil for anyone not native to Southern Europe or the Middle East.

      You’d say turkey for anyone other than Aztecs and a few Pueblo tribes if I remember right. But turkeys are similar to chickens and, more so, vertebrates tend not to have toxic flesh, with the notable exception of a few amphibian taxa.


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