For better or for worse, we inherit much of the body composition tendencies of our parents. This can be argued as merely adopting their food habits, which directly affects our health, and I believe that's a big part of why our bodies are the way they are. However, there are most certainly genetic predispositions to certain body shapes and sizes, as well. Often times, I focus on diet as the #1 instigator of health and disease, but when it comes to issues of overweight and obesity I often find myself wondering just how much genetics can play a role in whether a person is thin or fat, muscular or lanky, apple or pear-shaped. Many of us know folks who can eat whatever the heck they want without any apparent health effects or significant body composition changes.
Case in point, Don Gorske, the infamous McDonald's enthusiast who has eaten 24,000 Big Macs since 1972. Despite this indulgence -- and the sodas that come with it -- Gorske appears to be in good health. (I say “appears” because he is not overweight and has good cholesterol numbers; not so sure about his teeth, triglycerides, HDL:LDL ratio, VLDL levels or other markers of health.) He has a full head of dark hair, walks every day, and also has a positive outlook on life. Arguably, these are signs of good health. How can this be? Isn't fast food one of the prime suspects in modern disease? Could this mean that fast food is off the hook? Well, before you go out gorging on McDonald's because of one man's seeming success on such fare, read on.
Mr. 180, Matt Stone, recently blogged about Gorske, pinpointing dietary, philosophical, and hereditary reasons as to why this man's physical health seems to be unaffected by the foods he eats. Of all the reasons listed by Matt, I believe heredity to be the most important factor. For one thing, as Matt says in his post, Gorske grew up “...in cow country and didn't start eating fast food until age 18 ...” Developmentally speaking, this Big Mac-lover had a head start in good health -- especially if we consider that he only started eating fast food after his body and metabolic tendencies were well-established. And while it's interesting to observe Gorske's apparent well-being and question the assumption that fast food is detrimental to our health, the picture would not be complete without full consideration of his unique heredity. Perhaps he is the fortunate heir of health not-far-removed from that of our ancestors. What of his genetics, his childhood health, his parents' and their parents' health?
Unfortunately, I don't have access to this information, but I would hazard a guess that his parents were closer to a traditional diet than not for most of their lives, and that they were maybe the first or second generation of degeneration. In contrast, many of us have parents or grandparents who were well on their way to degeneration during their life time and this directly affected our health -- epigenetics influenced strongly by diet. (See section below, “Degeneration in the Cafeteria.”) Maybe some of us, like Gorske, are able to avoid some of the dramatic metabolic changes seen today -- namely obesity -- simply because our parents and grandparents hadn't quite reached that particular stage of degeneration. Obesity, if we think about the very low historic levels and the high levels of today, appears to be a stage of degeneration that comes after maybe three generations of poor food habits. It also appears to be in direct connection with the consumption of the modern franken-foods -- artificial fructose, trans fats, white flour, vegetable oils.
Whatever the case may be, it's evident that obesity is an abnormal human state brought about by heredity, which is influenced by dietary changes. What's interesting, however, is that some people -- like Don Gorske-- due to perhaps a closer-to pure heredity, are able to escape the effects of poor food habits during their lifetime. How their children might fare is another question.
You know what would be an awesome experiment? Taking a bunch of thin people who appear to do just fine on junk-food, like Gorske, and feeding them lots and lots of food and seeing how quickly they gain weight, how their metabolism reacts, and whether or not they return to their normal weight when the experiment is over. Maybe this would provide answers as to why thin people are thin. That post is up next.
SIDEBAR: Degeneration in the Cafeteria
Imagine a line at a cafeteria with a limited amount of food. There's (1) the traditional foods of our ancestors: raw dairy, grass-fed meats, fish, fresh grains, fruits and vegetables; there's (2) a mixed-diet of these traditional foods with some processed foods (mainly sugar and white flour); then there's (3) the factory-raised meats, white flour, artificial fructose, and rancid vegetable oil-laden diet of today. First in line, our great grandparents, enjoyed a diet primarily of traditional foods and experienced good health. Second in line, their children (our grandparents) approached the front of the line and much of the traditional foods had already been eaten by their parents, so they began eating some white flour and sugar with some ill health effects, notably lowered immunity and dental disease. Third in line, these childrens' children (our parents) arrived at the food and they were left with more white flour and sugar than traditional foods; they developed physical deformities from nutritional deficiencies and might have developed some issues with weight and diabetes as well as other degenerative diseases, depending on their parents' food choices. That brings us to the last ones in line (the 20 and 30-somethings of today) who are left with the most processed of all processed foods: high-fructose corn syrup, rancid vegetable oil, trans fats, and the like. These poor folks not only have a poor diet, but may inherit the traits of their parents 100-fold, possibly becoming obese and diabetic at an early age, in addition to a slew of health problems that come along with being at the end of a long line of degeneration. Below is a (purely theoretical) visual representation of this.