The Atlantic features "headless fattie"

By Razib Khan | May 16, 2011 1:33 pm

I was browsing the front page of The Atlantic and I noticed that it featured a “headless fattie.” This is the standard illustration of obese people in the American media which omits their heads, and tends to focus on their mid-section. You can read about them here. As obesity becomes normal in the United States it is interesting to see how the media is trying to grapple with the topic, and how it illustrates obese people. I found the tensions at the heart of the recent Village Voice piece, Guys Who Like Fat Chicks, fascinating.

If you’ve been to Manhattan you’ll note a distinct paucity of fat folk, let alone ‘fat chicks,’ so the whole piece tends to veer between explicit identity politics consciousness raising and implicit ‘freak show.’ On the one hand many New Yorkers are proud of the fact that because they walk everywhere there’s a norm of a relatively slim physique which would not be typical in much of the American “Heartland.” And yet the fat acceptance movement pretty clearly hooks into the natural sympathy of many in cosmopolitan Lefty circles for identity politics aimed to uplift the marginalized. They leverage the same general structure of argument applied to racial and later sexual minorities, attempting to de-pathologize a body type which is currently the focus of great public health concern.

Here’s the paper which triggered the piece in The Atlantic, Identification of an imprinted master trans regulator at the KLF14 locus related to multiple metabolic phenotypes:

Genome-wide association studies have identified many genetic variants associated with complex traits. However, at only a minority of loci have the molecular mechanisms mediating these associations been characterized. In parallel, whereas cis regulatory patterns of gene expression have been extensively explored, the identification of trans regulatory effects in humans has attracted less attention. Here we show that the type 2 diabetes and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol–associated cis-acting expression quantitative trait locus (eQTL) of the maternally expressed transcription factor KLF14 acts as a master trans regulator of adipose gene expression. Expression levels of genes regulated by this trans-eQTL are highly correlated with concurrently measured metabolic traits, and a subset of the trans-regulated genes harbor variants directly associated with metabolic phenotypes. This trans-eQTL network provides a mechanistic understanding of the effect of the KLF14 locus on metabolic disease risk and offers a potential model for other complex traits.

Basically it looks like they found a genomic region which has a global regulatory effect on a lot of genes, and therefore the metabolic tendencies of fat tissue. Not trivial. I can see why The Atlantic headline is “British Scientists Find the Fat Gene.” But taking into account the magnitude of the obesity problem in the United States I wish that the media wouldn’t label this in such an easily misinterpreted manner. Skimming over the statistics for example I don’t get a sense that most of the variance in the population of obesity is due to the variation at this locus. Though someone can correct me.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Genetics, Obesity
  • http://huntgatherlove.com Melissa

    I spent almost all my time in Manhattan and while it’s not as bad as where I’m from in the Deep South, it’s still noticeable particularly since I moved here from Stockholm. I encounter at least one person a day who takes up two seats on the subway or who makes it difficult to get out of the subway or into the subway because of their size.

    Hilariously, I learned about fat acceptance because one fat acceptance blogger shares my name (replacing an a with an e) and people have mistaken her for me. I do sympathize with the extreme biological difficulty of losing weight once someone gets to a certain point. I went from “overweight” to “normal” but that’s a lot easier than going from “obese” to “normal” considering the metabolic derangement that accompanies such a state. I tend to be a live and let live sort of person, but these people don’t engender very good feelings in a dense over-crowded place like NYC.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    yes. i was surprised that that melissa followed my blog initially when i noticed you (via your website, etc.).

  • Robert

    23andMe reports (for those of European descent):
    “Common variants near MC4R are associated with fat mass, weight and risk of obesity. The authors found that on average, the waist circumference of people with the AA genotype at rs12970134 was 0.88 cm (0.35 inches) larger than for those with AG. The waist circumference of people with the GG genotype was 0.88 cm (0.35 inches) smaller than those with AG.”

    Being GG I’d check my waist circumference if I could actually get to it through my beer gut!

    I don’t mind fat chicks as long as they are really cute blonde, snub-nosed, Scandinavian, English, or Dutch milk-maid types.

  • chris w

    Even if there is a fat gene, it appears to have little impact upon appearance unless certain dietary variables are in play. North American whites and Euro whites aren’t significantly different in terms of genetic makeup, unless they’re claiming that it’s a mutation that came into existence very recently among North American whites exclusively. That’s very unlikely considering the stories that Europeans share of gaining weight during extended visits to America. Also, second generation Asian-Americans can be just as fat as any other American. I’m quite thin, and I remember having to turn sideways in order to allow other thin people in the “supermarkets” of Norway, Sweden and Finland to pass me in the aisles. Portion sizes and fewer processed foods obviously matter a lot, as does walking.

  • charlie

    Self reported obesity among all New Yorkers who live in the East Side and lower Manhattan is in the 15% range. Compare that to whites in DC with a self reported 9%.

    The big difference, of course, isn’t obesity. It is just plain old overweight, where even Manhattan and DC are worse than most northern European countries. Greece and Spain, however, are now just as bad.

  • http://huntgatherlove.com Melissa

    Self reported obesity among all New Yorkers who live in the East Side and lower Manhattan is in the 15% range. Compare that to whites in DC with a self reported 9%.

    Wow, that’s surprising. I always thought those were the “thin” areas. If you want to see Stockholm-style folks, the LES, Williamsburg, and Park Slope are where you’ll find them. Although I live in Queens and sometimes see the rare event where all the bucket seats (which are built for thin people and the newer trains lack them) are full and have only one person per seat, usually a mix of East Asian immigrants and hipsters.

    It’s clear to me living in Queens (even without the massive amount of data available on the subject from Pacific Islanders and Native Americans like the Pima), that some populations are more susceptible to obesity than others. Seems like the folks from Mexico, the Philippines, and India seem to suffer the effects first. Food is still the problem, but some people can tolerate worse food than others, at least when they are young.

  • http://www.riverellan.blogspot.com Tom Bri

    And I live in fat-central, Mid-West near Chicago. I was amazed recently on a trip to Texas, how wonderfully slim the women were. (Didn’t notice the guys much.) Particularly, the Black women were rangy and lean, something we rarely see here. I work in an office with 60 women, there are two slim ones, a handful of plumps, and the rest…

  • Justin Giancola

    the rest… “headless fatties!?” lol this such an awful expression.

  • http://ecophysio.fieldofscience.com/ EcoPhysioMichelle

    Of the genomes in my library, the only A/A individual at rs12970134 has the 2nd lowest BMI.

    Also, when you first sent me the link to that “Guys Who Like Fat Chicks” article I was offended that normal chubby-chasers like me get lumped into the same group as hipsters like that dude. :P

    I can’t help it. Adam Richman is my ideal man.

  • Sandgroper

    Chubby chasers are normal? You mean I’m doing all this weight training and running for nothing? :(

  • Domino

    I wonder if there is a connection between this post, and your post above about the genetics of Swedes. If the Scandos are healthy and slim, could it be because agriculture was a late-comer? Agriculture is just step one in the mechanisation of food. When you get the extremes of processed food, you see fat epidemics, as in Arabia and the South Pacific.

  • toto

    OT: Notice that while the “fattie” is charitably left headless, the unconvicted, supposedly-innocent-until-proven-guilty DSK is shown in full infamy.

  • http://ecophysio.fieldofscience.com/ EcoPhysioMichelle

    Sandgroper, IIRC you already have a lady committed to spending her life with you, so I don’t think you’re doing anything for nothing.

  • Sandgroper

    Michelle, sometimes I wonder why I do it – a lot of my friends have asked how I have managed to keep it up long term. Even my doctor asked me. When your doctor asks for your advice on keeping fit, it makes you think – anyway, the bastard didn’t offer to pay me, so I didn’t tell him :)

    My wife tells everyone that I’m wonderfully self-disciplined, but it’s not that. I have to conclude that it’s basically just because I enjoy it – I enjoy doing it, and enjoy what it does to me. I feel like shit if I don’t do it. But that’s me, not everyone.

    So I think it’s really not helpful to tell fat people that the secret to becoming less fat is to be more physically active. In my case, I do think that exercise is more important than diet, within reason. But I have some close family who are obese, and I know what it’s like for them – it’s really not helpful to keep telling them they need to be more active, they know. I can tell them what to do, but that’s the easy part. The hard part is to find a physical activity that is enjoyable, and find the time to do it, because essentially it needs to become like breathing. Everyone is different, and what I might find induces euphoria is just unmitigated torture for other people.

    I’m not unsympathetic to fat liberation, but it would seem perverse to make a virtue of it – there has to be a solution for people who don’t want to be fat. There is – exercise strenuously every day, and be intelligently selective about what you eat and drink – experiment with what works for you, because everyone is different, but there are some obvious general fundamentals. But saying that is a lot easier than doing it long term for a lot of people, and once they become genuinely obese, it becomes hugely difficult.

  • omar

    Obesity is a health problem but the moral panic about obesity is definitely generating its own irrational exuberance and needs to be kept in perspective. Most modestly overweight people are NOT unhealthy (the “healthiest” BMI for White people is around 27, which the CDC for some reason classifies as mildly overweight) and some very overweight people are doing OK too. Again, its not that obesity does not increase your risk for some diseases, it does. But a number of thinnies who are smirking about “fatties” are going to conk off before those fatties do. That is not an original observation, but my point is that the moral panic about obesity is now crossing the bounds of rational concern into the very human tendency of humans to gloat about their supposed superiority over a group now identified as morally inferior.
    http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/35/1/55.full.pdf
    http://www.today.ucla.edu/portal/ut/060523voice_obesity.aspx

  • http://huntgatherlove.com Melissa

    Part of them problem is that people are told to just eat less and exercise and they’ll be thin. I didn’t lose weight when I tried that, in fact I just kept gaining. I didn’t lose weight until I changed the kind of food I ate.

    Either way, it’s kind of amusing that most fat acceptance folks are lefty because a lot of dislike for the obese is rooted in the fact that people perceive them as taking up more than their fair share of government-provided resources like health care. Whether that’s true remains to be seen, but most people wouldn’t care very much about that lifestyle choice if we didn’t think it cost more of our tax dollars.

    It’s interesting about the Swedes because compare their obesity rates to the Finnish, despite almost identical food cultures. The Finnish are much heavier in general and rates of many “diseases of civilization” are much higher in that rather genetically distinct population. Some Finns told me that they think it’s because they are closer to hunter-gatherers. Either way, their diets look so much better than the diets of the “transitional” populations where obesity is such a big problem like India, Saudi Arabia, the Pacific Islands, Mexico. Lots of whole foods, many full-fat…

  • Sandgroper

    But you eat goats :)

    “most people wouldn’t care very much about that lifestyle choice if we didn’t think it cost more of our tax dollars.”

    Except the problem you mentioned – fat bastards get in the way. This is not trivial.

  • Robert

    Over concern for personal appearance or worse yet, other peoples appearance is a sign that you are either a girl or gay.

    “Part of them problem is that people are told to just eat less and exercise and they’ll be thin.”

    Why is it a “problem” since it is true of anyone without a pathological metabolic disorder. Although I will concede that food faddism is only a sign of being female rather than homosexual. In fact, given the widespread prevalence of fat lesbians, I would say the preponderance of food faddists are heterosexual girls (with a slight sprinkling of right-wing anti-vaccination/flouride nuts.)

  • http://huntgatherlove.com Melissa

    “food faddism”? I simply don’t eat industrial foods. If it’s a fad then it’s as old as humans themselves.

    “Over concern for personal appearance or worse yet, other peoples appearance is a sign that you are either a girl or gay.”

    I’m guessing you are a tad bit pudgy ;) Dudes are quite concerned with the physical appearance of women. I got way more attention from men when I ditched the spare tire. I totally admit that I’m a girl though.

    And yes, some people who are just moderately overweight don’t lose weight merely by cutting calories and exercising. Have you ever heard of set-point theory? Leptin resistance? I guess you could argue everyone overweight has a pathological metabolic disorder though.

    We aren’t talking about appearance per se here, we are talkin about metabolic syndrome. It is true that some people have this without having obesity. There is a good amount of evidence these people consume more health care dollars. I don’t want kids in school being made to feel bad about being fat, but I don’t want it preached as a “lifestyle choice” either.

  • Robert

    “I’m guessing you are a tad bit pudgy”

    I already said that in post #3. Although I’m actually increasingly more saggy than pudgy as I progress through my 60′s.

    “And yes, some people who are just moderately overweight don’t lose weight merely by cutting calories and exercising. Have you ever heard of set-point theory? Leptin resistance?”

    Faddist hoo-hah. The number of long-term scientific dietetic studies where the subjects food intake was closely monitored 24/7 are practically non-existent. People cheat.

    Any “moderately over-weight” healthy human omnivore just needs to add some extra exercise or cut-out a meal or two to get over any “set-points.”

  • chris w

    ” but my point is that the moral panic about obesity is now crossing the bounds of rational concern into the very human tendency of humans to gloat about their supposed superiority over a group now identified as morally inferior.”

    Sorry, but it’s a drag to live in a country with such high levels of obesity, in part because it artificially inflates the value and ego of remaining thin women and also because it makes the experience of being in public much less pleasant. I like to see pretty things as I walk down the street. When you visit Europe, you realize what a drastic difference it makes in terms of the quality of life. Why would we want want that here? Whenever I return from Europe, I take one look at the size of the women at the airport that I return to, and go, “Great…I’m home. Why, America? Why?”

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    chris, but your comment does validate omar’s contention that there’s a *moral* dimension to it. though i think a lot of these issues fall under eudaimonia.

  • prasad

    “Most modestly overweight people are NOT unhealthy (the “healthiest” BMI for White people is around 27, which the CDC for some reason classifies as mildly overweight”

    Omar, I haven’t followed this recently or much. Is this robust? I seem to remember something about smokers accounting for it, because cigarettes make you you slimmer, but not healthier.

  • chris w

    I guess you’re right, although I’d say it’s more aesthetic than moral. People just don’t like seeing it, myself included — my desire to see the sale of sweetened and processed foods taxed/restricted is aesthetically motivated. One might say that aesthetic preferences don’t form a legitimate basis for policy, but if a sufficient number of powerful people share said preferences, they certainly can: building codes that mandate certain architectural styles, HOAs that prohibit you from painting your door a wrong color, greenbelts and greenspaces, etc. Bans against public nudity might also fall under that scope — the initial justification might have been religious, but whenever discussion of overturning such bans occurs, somebody will always say, “I don’t think I should be forcibly subjected to the view of somebody else walking around nude, especially considering how many fat/old/hairy/whatever people live in this town.”

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    I guess you’re right, although I’d say it’s more aesthetic than moral

    that’s why i said ‘human flourishing.’ really the issue with obesity is multi-textured. reducing to one element alone (health, beauty, reflection of self-control) misses the bigger picture.

  • Sandgroper

    Robert – LOL! You sound like an energy-balance kind of guy. Life is so simple. How come so many guys with beer guts are experts on diet and exercise?

    Melissa, I wanted to get your advice on something – the other day I was confronted by “double boiled snow frog with deer placenta paste and fish maw.” Would that be industrial food? For the record, I passed – I saw what the placenta looked like when my daughter was born, and there’s no way I’m putting that stuff in my mouth.

  • Fernando

    Friends, various point of views may come to our mind when talking about weight management but the only fact is that its rather a way of living than an eating habit, if you are willing to eat more then the activities incurred in losing that energy must be directly proportional to the amount of energy obtained. this will then create a right balance. Weight is not considered as exponential, but if we make the correlation between being overweight and being obese, we will find that these are same words that carries different extent which give weight an exponential definition.

  • omar

    Prasad, The data are somewhat confusing and depend on whether you mean overweight as an older adult or overweight as a young person and future mortality 30 years down the road? Different populations have different results too, for example, Asians who are overweight have lower mortality than underweight asians even though asians get metabolic syndrome at lower BMI levels…the fatter Asians are better off Asians and being better off counts for more than being a bit fat. And so on. But if you look at a large number of studies of European populations, you do find that the IDEAL body weight may be 24 or 26, but there is very little difference as you move from 23 to about 28 or so, so finding the absolute lowest mortality association is interesting but its even more important to notice that nothing much happens to mortality from 23 to 28 BMI. And even above that point, really consistent and significant increases in all cause mortality dont happen till you hit 35 or so. So the panic about being at 27 or 28 is definitely unjustified.
    The other point to keep in mind is that fitness trumps fatness until you get to really high BMIs. The mortality associated with being unfit is much greater than that associated with being overweight. Its just harder to spot in an airport line. The mortality risk from being a chronically stressed worrier or a divorced male may exceed that associated with being mildly obese, but we are not suggesting that we stop hiring people who worry too much or who get divorced (and the head of the Mayo clinic did suggest not hiring people who are fat).
    The issue of smoking and lower weight is real, but doesnt change the good mortality stats of mildly overweight people.
    Again, I am not saying obesity is not a risk for some diseases. I am saying the panic has reached irrational proportions and is targeting people who are not necessarily at risk. And there is enough noise in the data to suggest that using these epidemiologic findings to target individual persons is likely to create many many cases of harm. People who are thin (and I am thin, in case you were wondering) have little justification for feeling morally superior to those who are overweight. and so on..
    Here is a representative abstract.

    Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Jan;18(1):214-8. Epub 2009 Jun 18.
    BMI and mortality: results from a national longitudinal study of Canadian adults.
    Orpana HM, Berthelot JM, Kaplan MS, Feeny DH, McFarland B, Ross NA.
    SourceHealth Analysis Division, Statistics Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. horpana@uottawa.ca

    Abstract
    Although a clear risk of mortality is associated with obesity, the risk of mortality associated with overweight is equivocal. The objective of this study is to estimate the relationship between BMI and all-cause mortality in a nationally representative sample of Canadian adults. A sample of 11,326 respondents aged >or=25 in the 1994/1995 National Population Health Survey (Canada) was studied using Cox proportional hazards models. A significant increased risk of mortality over the 12 years of follow-up was observed for underweight (BMI <18.5; relative risk (RR) = 1.73, P 35; RR = 1.36, P <0.05). Overweight (BMI 25 to <30) was associated with a significantly decreased risk of death (RR = 0.83, P 0.05). Our results are similar to those from other recent studies, confirming that underweight and obesity class II+ are clear risk factors for mortality, and showing that when compared to the acceptable BMI category, overweight appears to be protective against mortality. Obesity class I was not associated with an increased risk of mortality.

    And some more interesting articles:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=the-best-body-mass-index-for-low-mo-2010-12-01
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21345101 (Asians)
    http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/173/4/430.long (overweight may not be healthiest, but may still be longest lived)

  • Sandgroper

    That’s a good summary, to which I would add only a couple of things: (1) BMI was devised as a population-level indicator and can be misleading when applied at a personal level (e.g. a fit and very muscular individual with low body fat % will be misread as overweight), and (2) fat distribution matters, fat distributed over the abdomen and chest being more disadvantageous to health than fat distributed over the hips, buttocks and thighs.

    Those two things help to confound the findings for people who are ‘overweight’ according to BMI.

    In addition to the so called ‘fat paradox’ (i.e. healthy fat people), there are other anomalies, e.g. anecdotally I know an anomalously high number of slender, physically active, non-smoking, non-drinking middle aged southern Han males who have very high blood pressure, some of whom are also diabetic; and, curiously, have a high incidence of gout.

  • Robert

    I’m happy to say that in addition to a BMI of 27 being linked to longevity, both heavy and moderate drinkers live longer than teetotalers too.

    http://singularityhub.com/2010/09/02/heavy-drinkers-outlive-non-drinkers-longevity-never-tasted-so-good/

    “We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”
    – Benjamin Franklin

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

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 http://www.razib.com

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