Genetic engineering in the service of social engineering?

By Razib Khan | September 28, 2008 10:53 pm

FuturePundit comments on the recent story about the shift away from the “Mediterranean diet” in the Mediterranean, specifically Greece. This is naturally leading to greater obesity. FuturePundit states:

Fresh produce and olive oil can’t compete with hamburgers and fries. We need to either genetically engineer ourselves to dislike junk food or we need to genetically engineer our metabolisms to handle junk food without harmful effects.

le_grand_comptoir_duck_conf.jpgI’ve been trying to avoid fried foods myself; but one thing that I have been noting is that when I walk by a restaurant where there’s a lot of frying going on I get really, really, curious about what it might taste like. Tastes and impulse control exhibit variation, but the mean is simply going to cause a whole lot of chronic health trouble in a world of cheap calories.* Nevertheless, we need to admit that there’s a big utility return here. People really like fatty fried foods, though I think in classic Epicurean fashion the optimal pleasure is obtained by alternating between lightly cooked dishes rich in green vegetables with meat-centered items fried in saturated fats. But the optimum mix is probably still way too heavy on saturated fats.
Below the fold I’ve posted the chart of obesity rates by nation rank-ordered. I suspect some will be surprised by #2.
* I do think we should keep in perspective that the “obesity epidemic” is an unfortunate byproduct of a wealthy and well-fed society.


  • Ben

    A recent piece in PLoS Biology might open up the genetic engineering solution as it nicely disambiguates the population-level obesity-diabetes correlation from the aetiology of insulin resistance. The latter it attributes to exceeding adipose tissue expandability – a property which varies between individuals and which we can already fiddle with using drugs. Another big idea is that lipotoxicity is the main problem. Maybe we’ll end up offsetting high-lipid meals with some sort of cola product loaded with resveratrol – uber-red wine for uber-fatty food or a med diet on steroids…
    My intuition is that, although obesity is present in mainly high-income countries, it is a low-income problem (note the glut of plummeting-price adverts for subs on US TV at the moment). So I’d love to see a fat tax cross-subsidise fresh produce to reduce the price per calorie of healthy options.

  • razib


    The highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States are found among the lower-income groups. The observed links between obesity and socioeconomic position may be related to dietary energy density and energy cost. Refined grains, added sugars, and added fats are among the lowest-cost sources of dietary energy. They are inexpensive, good tasting, and convenient. In contrast, the more nutrient-dense lean meats, fish, fresh vegetables, and fruit generally cost more. An inverse relationship between energy density of foods (kilojoules per gram) and their energy cost (dollars per megajoule) means that the more energy-dense diets are associated with lower daily food consumption costs and may be an effective way to save money. However, economic decisions affecting food choice may have physiological consequences. Laboratory studies suggest that energy-dense foods and energy-dense diets have a lower satiating power and may result in passive overeating and therefore weight gain. Epidemiologic analyses suggest that the low-cost energy-dense diets also tend to be nutrient poor. If the rise in obesity rates is related to the growing price disparity between healthy and unhealthy foods, then the current strategies for obesity prevention may need to be revised. Encouraging low-income families to consume healthier but more costly foods to prevent future disease can be construed as an elitist approach to public health. Limiting access to inexpensive foods through taxes on frowned upon fats and sweets is a regressive measure. The broader problem may lie with growing disparities in incomes and wealth, declining value of the minimum wage, food imports, tariffs, and trade. Evidence is emerging that obesity in USA is a largely economic issue.

    the main issue is that you need to disentangle this from another issue: fatitude seems to reduce one’s income all things controlled.

  • Jason Malloy

    The book ‘Hungry Planet’ has interesting photos of what the average family eats in a week, from nations all across the world.
    I was previously aware of Mexico’s obesity rate, so one of the first things that struck me about the Mexican family photo, was that it seemed to have healthier food than any of the other nations. Or at least more fresh fruits and vegetables than most countries (esp the white and black U.S. families). But the second observation is that the Mexican family also has an entire table lined end to end in 2 liter bottles of Coke. I don’t know how 2 adults and 2 little boys could drink that much Coke in a week.
    If this picture is representative (and I don’t know if it is) I have to wonder if Mexicans would lose a lot of weight if they cut down on soda.

  • Ben

    That’s interesting. Taxing without cross-subsidy would obviously be regressive for current diets though it might save on health insurance costs which are socialised for the poor in the US. If fatness affects career opportunity, early stages maybe matter: the effective subsidy for low-grade beef in US school meals suggests that government intervention is there just the wrong ways around.

  • razib

    soda is apparently a big problem here too; i’ve heard that this is a big “low hanging fruit” for nutritionists who want to give chubbies advice on how to lose weight initially. i know of people (more so in college) who ONLY drink soda and juice. that’s a lot of extra sugar into your system. one of my friends had a sister who had to get a kidney transplant by her late 20s because she only drank soft drinks and so drank so much.

  • razib

    i’m making a proactive effort to “eat healthy.” not crazy or anything, i’ll eat fried food once a month or so. and i do recognize immediately the per-unit-expense-of-calorie in something like fresh vegetables vs. processed foods. OTOH, food should be more than just calories, so some of the issues here are psychological.

  • Lassi Hippeläinen

    That list of countries doesn’t mention Polynesia, where obesity is a real problem (e.g. Samoa and Tonga). More that 60% of adult population can have BMI over 30, and type 2 diabetes is running rampant. That’s what you get when you combine a traditional culture that appreciates corpulescence with modern junk food.
    But there’s also some weird genetics going on…

  • Sandgroper

    Sugary drinks are a kind of hidden hazard – just empty calories, and it’s easy to suck down lots of them. Lots of folks pump fruit juice into their kids, not realizing that they are full of fruit sugars, even if they have no added sugar. Make the little buggers eat the fruit and drink water. This really is the low hanging fruit for diet control, particularly in kids.
    If you are exercising vigorously, then it may be OK to sock sports drinks during the act, so to speak, in fact you may have to. Or to glug down some glucose to fix an energy deficit after prolonged activity. For people who are not doing prolonged vigorous exercise, drinking sugar-laden drinks is a really bad strategy – instant blood sugar spike that yo-yos, generating a kind of addictive effect to try to keep the blood sugar up, and it’s the road to insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes, not to mention fatitude. Same goes for beer. Sodas, beer, makes not a lot of difference.
    What I find interesting from that chart is that the obesity rate for Canada is significantly lower than for the USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand. I’ve tried to do a search to try to figure out why, but I can’t find any obvious reason. Anyone know why?
    Obesity in Greece is evidently now a real concern:$=relatedarticles&logdbfrom=pubmed
    But then it wasn’t so long ago that some droob was claiming that Australia is the fattest country in the world as a ploy to get research funding, while this is claiming that Greece is “one of, if not the”. I’m not down-playing it, obesity means BMI>30, which in people who are not strength athletes is serious. But just how many fattest nations are there?
    Also interesting that the Italians seem to be doing OK. Maybe they have been able to retain the Mediterranean diet.

  • Lindy

    As well as Polynesia, the chart doesn’t show the oil-rich Arab states, which I believe have overtaken the US in terms of obesity.
    “I do think we should keep in perspective that the “obesity epidemic” is an unfortunate byproduct of a wealthy and well-fed society.”
    That’s just silly. Did you even look at the chart you posted? Who is at the bottom? Norway, Switzerland, Japan, Korea. Hardly poor countries.

  • razib

    That’s just silly. Did you even look at the chart you posted? Who is at the bottom? Norway, Switzerland, Japan, Korea. Hardly poor countries.
    1) i didn’t say it was a necessary or pre-determined byproduct. but, obviously no poor country will have lots of obesity.
    2) 3% obesity is still a lot in a pre-modern context i would think. 8% most certainly.

  • Tod

    Roasted or fried food is definitely the most appetising, something to do with millions of tiny oil droplets containing tastes on the surface or so I read somewhere. Knowing about the recent confirmation of an acrylimide cacer risk from fries will make it easy for me to to resist, any day now.
    Obesity as a low income problem might be a corollary of anorexia being common among children of higher SES families, if so genetic engineering against obesity, or even for higher SES attainment, could entail increasing vulnerability to anorexia.

  • Spike Gomes

    The lack of morbid obesity here in Japan is so striking, that whenever I see a really fat person my eyes are drawn to them. There’s certainly no lack of junk food here, but two things are particularly telling. The first is that the most popular soft drinks here are various unsweetened green and oolong teas. I can’t find exact numbers yet, but every vending machine basically has half it’s selection as drinks with no sugar, added or natural. Second is that in general, they use less sugar here in making junk food. The doughnuts for example taste like white bread.
    In general, I think I’m going to have to take a look at obesity breakdowns by specific ethnic origins in the United States. It would be interesting to see how much is genetic propensity and how much is simply diet and lifestyle. It might be somewhat difficult, since Pacific Islanders get lumped in with Asians in most accountings of this sort of thing.

  • Matt McIntosh

    Insulin is the only hormone in your body that shifts your metabolic equilibrium toward fat storage. So if you’re talking obesity, you’re pretty much talking chronic hyperinsulemia — the fat gets trapped instead of being used. Increased carb intake is the only common way you acquire that; fatty foods have nothing to do with it, and neither do caloric content or activity levels per se.

  • Ponder Stibbons

    I plotted the obesity rates for 15 EU countries against walking rates (I could find only data from 2000, so no data on newer EU members), and found (unsurprisingly) a negative correlation. What’s interesting, though, is that in the sample of 15, the three outliers for obesity (UK, Luxembourg and Greece) seemed to form a linear regression by themselves. The other 12 countries had much lower levels of obesity but there was a clear negative correlation amongst them too. So walking (which may serve as a proxy for a more physically active lifestyle in general) explains at least part of the variation, but clearly there are other (dietary?) factors giving an apparently-constant boost to the outliers.

  • deadpost

    Is there even one optimal pleasure/impulse control generalizable to all populations?
    As populations such as the Polynesians demonstrate, local adaptations are a force to be reckoned with.
    Norway, Switzerland, Japan, Korea… compared to the United States or Mexico, variation due to heritable different tastes, saturation points, impulse control, or simply culture alone? The thinness of the aforementionned populations are always attributed to cultural norms for diet. Nonetheless, I think cultural norms aren’t the whole story and genetics/epigenetics/prepensity to different body types from local adaptions plays a role.
    Can the idea now that there isn’t just one EEA, but from the time when we left Africa to now, lots of new EEA’s have opened up, apply here?

  • Lindy

    “but, obviously no poor country will have lots of obesity.”
    Obviously? Obviously not:
    “On an African level we see now that obesity is a really major disease, in line with HIV and malnutrition. And it’s quite clear that malnutrition and obesity can co-exist at the same time and in the same country,”
    Come on now, make an effort please. You didn’t research this post at all.
    “3% obesity is still a lot in a pre-modern context i would think. 8% most certainly.”
    What about Kenya – 12%? Is that much?

  • Sandgroper

    These are national data. Polynesia is not a country.
    There are no data for a lot of countries, many for obvious reasons – no functioning health care system, and obesity is probably the least of their problems. But there is more than that going on – why is the UK such a stand-out among its neighbours? Why is Slovakia so much higher than Czech? Why does Greece have more of a problem than its neighbours?
    It’s not just relative affluence, although as a general principle that can’t be denied, in relation to both diet and sedentary lifestyle. There is an overlay of culture there, and genetic influences are obscured/not brought into focus.
    The Mexican data could be revealing something partly genetic – part native American ancestry combined with modern diet = obesity?
    In a hunter-gatherer society, I would think that obesity would be zero. See what happened to Australian Aboriginals after European settlement, when their nomadic seasonal hunting routes were blocked by land settlement by European farmers so they could no longer feed themselves on their traditional diet, and they encountered refined carbohydrates, an excess of fat and alcohol for the first time. They went from gracile people to blimps with rotten teeth and facial deformities in the space of a generation. The impacts of disease probably concealed something else insidious which would have seemed trivial by comparison – a diet to which they were not adapted.

  • natural cynic

    What I find interesting from that chart is that the obesity rate for Canada is significantly lower than for the USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand. I’ve tried to do a search to try to figure out why, but I can’t find any obvious reason. Anyone know why?

  • pconroy63

    I can’t wait for Genetically Modified (GM) and/or Cloned pigs to become more widespread – so I can snack on Omega-3 rich bacon!

  • razib

    What about Kenya – 12%? Is that much?
    what was your point again? yes, there’s a major residual.

  • richard

    “Fatitude”? What exactly is that?

  • Sandgroper

    “…on the road to…” “Insulin causes most of the body’s cells to take up glucose from the blood (including liver, muscle, and fat tissue cells), storing it as glycogen in the liver and muscle, and stops use of fat as an energy source.” An athletic person who has low body fat can take in glucose to restore glycogen stores in the liver and muscles depleted by activity – after prolonged intensive activity, this happens really fast, like within the space of 10 minutes. If your glycogen stores are depleted and you take in some glucose, the recovery is very self-evident and pretty quick. A sedentary person with high body fat taking in glucose is just sending himself further down the path to insulin resistance, diabetes and obesity. That was my point. Consumption of drinks with high sugar levels needs to be very informed.
    Ponder – yes, spot on. Tasty food helps a lot. Good stuff doesn’t have to be bland or boring.
    Fatitude is the state of self-delusion that keeps fat bastards sucking down the full-strength sodas instead of getting a grip and breaking the cycle.

  • Sandgroper
    “I’ll drink soda and I’ll feel better” – exactly.

  • Tod

    In the final analysis all carbohydrates are simple.
    From what I have read carbohydrates are only abundant for a few months of the year to hunter-gatherers even in tropical rain forest, research on orang outan droppings (in their native habitat obviously) showed a surprising amount of ketones.
    Most animals will stuff themselves with carbohydrates if given access to them because opportunities to do so are rare, restricted to a season and likely to be seized by the next animal that comes across them. Arthur DeVany on his blog, archives of which are no longer free access unfortunatly, suggests that hunter gatherers are hungry for 1/3 of the time. He thinks depleting glycogen turns on genes that are important for muscle growth and that post workout recovery drinks are very counter productive.
    Fasting for a day or two is said to turn on autophagy, ” a major cellular clearance route for intracellular protein aggregates”(Harrison, 2008), but its not very practical if you need to do intellectualy demanding work. Insulin is used to treat anorexia I believe.

  • Sandgroper

    A lot has happened affecting most of us since our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, so observations on hunter-gatherers might not be too helpful to most of us, e.g. I might conclude from hunter-gatherers that they are lactose intolerant, which I am not.
    Define ‘workout’.
    If I am playing a long and very competitive tennis match in the middle of a tropical summer (a real life situation for me), it is 2 sets all and I want to win it, and I just ran into a brick wall, then if I can get a quick replenishment of energy, I am going to go for it. At that moment, it is anything but counter-productive.
    If I am doing a weight training workout aimed at maintaining/increasing muscle mass and strength, yes, I am not going to sock down a load of glucose because I feel tired straight after training. The whole point is to exhaust the muscles – if my muscles are so exhausted that I am shaking, that makes me happy. But I am going to want to take in some protein to fuel growth.
    If the workout is cardio or HIIT for the purpose of fat loss, then yes, taking a post-workout energy recovery drink would be very counter-productive. But no one should do just that without also doing some resistance training.

  • Tod

    Well I was surprised to find out on this site how many people of North British origin are not really adapted to, and may suffer from drinking, milk. I have rethought my own consumption even though though I like milk and do not suffer any discomfort. Certainly the long standing dietary consumption of agricultural products would have produced a better management of glucose in people today.
    In your tennis scenario you would be burning off the sugar so the glucose, fructose, and sucrose (which can get into the bloodsteam if a large amount is taken) ect would not be exerting the deleterious effects that Ron Rosedale warns against. DeVany recomends tennis as a sport and ressistance exercise for the reasons you mentioned over things like running.
    So from my understanding of the above mentioned, who I consider worth paying atention to, your specific scenario for use of glucose replenishment for exercise is not bad and in fact better than almost anybody elses.
    It’s just from what I have read carbs should be kept to an absolute minimum for optimum health. Lactate during cardio, fat at other times is the ideal thing to be burning. Of course if you get a win in a very competitive match and feel on top of the world that would be matched by a physiological boost so your use of replenishment might well be recomended for that special case.

  • Tod

    “I am going to want to take in some protein to fuel growth”
    As protein can be used for fuel, that is, turned into sugar and burned, inceasingly as you get older when you are between meals or sleeping the protein that is going to be used for this purpose will be from your from your own muscles.
    Unless the body is trained to burn fat it will conserve glycogen and look for a source of sugar. Moral: “as long as you eat a high-carbohydrate, high-sugar, or excess protein diet your body will keep on burning sugar and storing fat” “and eating your muscles and bone”. According to Ron Rosedale anyway.

  • Tod

    Acording to Nick Lane’s Power, Sex, and Suicide the mitochondria of people who are adapted to cold weather tend to produce heat through uncoupling so they burn energy more inefficiently, needing more energy for the same amount of power generated.
    This has been found to make mice live longer by scientists at the University of Aberdeen even though this means the metabolism is faster the leader of the research sumed it up as “living fast to die old”. On futurepundit (May 2004)-Aubery DeGray commented “these mice probably have to eat more to stay alive”
    Overeating might not affect northern peoples to the same extent. Mitochondrial DNA common to Sweden has a lot of this heat generating characteristic whereas that from South Europe does not. African’s vulnerabilty to diabetes would fit in as they would have less use for heat generating ability.
    Inuit have low rates of heart disease ect. and the cold adapted mitochondria fits nicely, Lane admits there are other factors in all this like fish oil of course.
    The down side is a type of infertility because the sperm have few mitochondria and northern heat generating ones sometimes are too inefficient for getting the job done.

  • Sandgroper

    Sounds like Ron Rosedale is suggesting we shouldn’t be eating much of anything :)
    But in absolute terms, if people are not exercising he is probably right.
    The only way I know of to maintain muscle mass and bone density is to do resistance training (weight training or calisthenics) and load bearing exercise. The older you get, the more important this becomes because your body is generating progressively less growth hormone. Then I think it is OK to consume more protein, with some carbs to prevent the protein from just being converted to produce energy. You can see the outcome of just doing prolonged aerobic exercise – look at the upper body of any serious marathon runner, there is clearly visible evidence of upper body muscle wastage.
    Yes, I warn people I know not to consume any sugary drinks at any time except just after prolonged strenuous exercise when they are feeling exhausted. Any other time it has to have undesirable effects.
    Tennis can be a good one. The old thing was that it is not much exercise in terms of energy expenditure, but I think that had to come from the era of wooden racquets and having a genteel dink and giggle before retiring to the bar, which is a far cry from today’s power game. Try telling Rafa Nadal that you don’t get in shape playing and training for tennis. Two hours of intensive tennis drills with a coach hitting strokes the way they are played now should convince anyone that they have had a workout. The problem with tennis is that it is a difficult game to play well, the skills take a long time and a lot of application to learn, and you can’t really work yourself at a high enough level until you have acquired some of the necessary basic skills and also have a sufficiently high level of physical fitness to begin with. Then it becomes like prolonged HIIT witha lot of repeated body rotation. The only things I really don’t particularly like about it is that it is assymetrical, and it can be very hard on the joints and connective tissue. Injury avoidance becomes important, but a big part of that is technique.

  • Tod

    Rosedale, is an MD with a lot of experience in treating diabetics, regarded as one of the most extreme of the low carb advocates he does know his way around the science. He recomends advocados and olives and although some carbs are ok in things like strawberries, bread and rice ect. are out. He refers to the book Protein Power as a guide for calculating intake
    Arthur DeVany places a lot of emphasis on resistance exercise but is against going to failure, I doubt he would advocate regularly doing a workout that leaves you shaking. From my very limited experience one would be likely to vomit taking a post workout carb /protein drink in this state anyway.
    Sorry, I thought you where talking about a carb drink or shake during a break in a non routine and very competitive match. My rationale for thinking this might be compatible with Rosedale is that he suggests doing half an hour of brisk walking if you fall of the wagon on his diet. He is not big on exercise generally though and says that amping up your metabolism if it is running on sugar will be deleterious.
    Arthur DeVany is dead against taking post workout carb containing drinks. There is a bit on youtube of him talking about this. For what its worth Rosedale says the glycosylation from having sugar around too long is very pro-inflammatory, leading to sore joints.

  • Sandgroper

    I read Protein Power. Ultimately I ended up unconvinced by it. If people are insulin resistant, then yes, I think something like that is necessary. If people are in the normal range for body fat and are not insulin resistant, or not very, then I don’t think it’s necessary to do more than have a sensible balanced diet and avoid things that are lacking in nutrition and full of empty calories. Obvious candidates for this are sodas and alcoholic drinks, which tend by their nature to be consumed in excessive quanities. One Coke or a beer in a week or a month is not going to hurt anyone, but who does that? The real killers are the things that contain both a lot of carbs and a lot of fat – think of the candidates: icecream, chocolate, fries…bread is in this category, depending on the bread and how much of it you eat. Rice and pasta are not, depending on how they are cooked and what they are eaten with – if you exercise enough you burn it.
    Vomit? No, never happened, and I have done a lot of weight training over a long time. If I ever feel a bit nauseous, which is most likely to happen after high intensity interval training, then drinking a small bottle of glucose drink makes the nausea vanish almost instantly. But note I am training to improve physical fitness as the primary outcome, not fat loss. Most people who get fit enough and do enough physically don’t need to worry about being fat – not all, certainly, there are some notable exceptions, but by and large.
    If you do heavy weights workouts, it hurts. But there’s good pain and bad pain heh heh. Seriously, there is.
    If you want to increase muscle mass and size, you have to work the muscles to failure, meaning you just can’t squeeze out one more repetition, even with someone spotting you. Maybe not every time, just like you won’t get a good pump every time, but muscles just doing what they are used to doing are not going to get bigger and stronger all by themselves.
    Growth and improvement in anything comes from pushing the envelope. It’s a truism, but if you keep doing what you’re doing, you keep getting what you’re getting.

  • Tod

    Cycling i.e. going to lower weights and building up over time to a new max. is essential if one is training that hard, lifting weights with poor form which, lets face it, will go with a maximum effort is one of the most dangerious activities around.
    There is support for the belief that the moderate use of alcohol is benificial though a hormetic effect.( not to be confused with the horniness effect its consumption has on women through a testosterone spike)
    And for low carbers
    “Low doses of alcohol substantially decrease metabolism of glucose in the human brain”, and boost ketones use which may have it own benefits.(Veech,RL)

  • Sandgroper

    Poor form does not have to go with maximum effort. The whole point is to train to failure on the muscle contraction in the final rep of the final set using strict form. Once your form goes, you may as well reduce the weight, because heaving a lot of weight around might impress the guys in the gym (doubtful) but it won’t do much else useful.
    Training to failure using strict form carries little risk of injury. People might want to use a spotter (someone standing behind them ready to help lift the bar) on bench press. I can’t think of much else.
    There is support for lots of beliefs, but it doesn’t make them fact. And if the objective of weight training is ultimately health and fitness to improve quality of life, then engaging in a strategy that detracts from that objective seems self-defeating. I have nothing against moderate consumption of alcohol (assuming you mean no more than 1 or 2 standard drinks on any day), I just don’t see much evidence of it in real life. And it is still adding calories, plus ethyl alcohol is a muscle relaxant that makes your guts hang out, which seems a bit self-defeating.

  • Sandgroper

    This was predictable.,23599,24475861-29277,00.html
    Longevity has peaked in Australia. Which means not just longevity, but also quality of life.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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