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Monday, March 19, 2007

When All Else Fails, Blame Genetics

I was involved in a conversation this past weekend that turned to genetics and how overweight people are genetically inclined for such because, in this case, they are missing the brain's ability to respond to leptin. First, I pointed out that the person misunderstood last week's report on leptin. It's not that the obese genetically lack sensitivity to leptin. It's that they have become leptin resistant. But my real beef was the overall theme of the discussion: genetics. Genetics is all through the news. Science's discovery of the workings of genetics and DNA has been both positive and a negative. Genetics has helped us to understand our evolutionary lineage and how certain diseases develop. It has also become the crutch du jour of most everyone that has any problem. Pick which of the following you're heard (or used) a variation of:
- "It's just not in my genes to be thin."
- "My parents were big."
- "(x disease) runs in my family."
- The list goes on ad nauseam

The problem with such thinking is that it removes the actor from any responsibility and places the blame solely on the actor's genes, or more appropriately on their parents, their parent's parents, and their parent's parent's parents. It is the latest in dodging personal responsibility to blame someone or something else - in this case DNA, which is invisible (to the naked eye at least). How can you avoid your genetic fate if you can't even SEE your genes? And if you can't avoid your fate because "it's in your genes," what point is there in trying? Your parents were overweight and their parents were overweight. You might as well eat bon-bons with an ice cream chaser all day because you're destined to be overweight, right? WRONG!

I can't relay to you how much it grates me to hear someone invoke genetics for their situation. I'm a huge proponent of personal responsibility and genes are nearly always used as a cop out. Sure, there are certain things that you cannot overcome genetically. I blame my genes for my inability to get a tan. That is something that will never change. In fact, no matter how hard I try, I will never have the olive skin of an Italian nor the dark skin of someone of African descent. I will also not have blond hair without hair dye and I'm unlikely to ever reach 6' tall. Oh, and my eyes will always be blue. However, my weight will always be my responsibility. I hear people say "Diabetes runs in my family." Now, I have no doubt that certain people are predisposed to certain illnesses. Everyone doesn't process food as efficiently as others. Some people have a slow metabolism and have to be judicious with their eating to avoid becoming overweight. Some people may be genetically inclined to become insulin resistant, IF they abuse their body with processed, sugary foods. Note the caveat there: "IF they abuse their body with processed, sugary foods." You don't become overweight and diabetic without misusing food (discounting the very small percentage of people with glandular disorders).

See, genetics aren't a roadmap to your life. They are more like the direction posts that we see in movies and cartoons. You're traveling down your life's Route 1 and come upon a sign post that says "Donuts and obesity, 3 miles" pointing to the right and one that says "Healthful living, 10 miles" to the left. You determine which road you take, your genetics determine what happens to your body at that point. So you see that if you choose healthful living, you can drastically reduce the negative effects of your genes. If you eat meat, vegetables, nuts, healthful oils (like olive, coconut, and palm), fruit, sweet potatoes, and squashes, you are probably not going to become overweight and diabetic, regardless of your genetics. Of course, some genetic diseases are a roadmap to your life. Down Syndrome, neurological disorders, other birth defects, Lou Gherig's disease, etc are genetic disorders that no amount of healthful living is going to fix. But you are not destined to be obese. You are not destined to be diabetic. You determine your destiny by the foods that you consume and a sedentary lifestyle.

This brings me to another minor quibble that I am guilty of. I didn't go back through my old posts to see how many times I've said this, but I know I have made the error that I am about to point out. One does not "have" Type II Diabetes. Rather, one "is" diabetic. "Having" a medical issue connotes that you caught it somewhere. You "have" a cold or you "have" the flu. You "are" diabetic, meaning you can become "not diabetic". To "have" an illness means you had little to do with getting it, other than perhaps not washing your hands properly. To "be" something says "I am responsible for this." If you "are" a doctor, you didn't just accidentally become a doctor. If you "are" a banker, you probably did something to become a banker; it wasn't an accident. When you "have" diabetes, you remove your responsibility for the disease, whereas when you "are" diabetic, you acknowledge your responsibility in becoming such.

Take responsibility for your life, as so many others have, and stop blaming your genes. When you blame your genes, you are effectively shifting all responsibility to your ancestors. Many, many people have taken responsibility for their health and began eating proper foods to lose the weight and essentially stop being diabetic. All it takes is personal responsibility and fortitude.