Book Review: The Hungry Gene

I have been reading The Hungry Gene: The Inside Story of the Obesity Industry by Ellen Ruppel Shell for the past three days, and found it to be utterly fascinating. This book tells the story of how scientists are tracking down the genetic and biochemical causes of the current world-wide obesity epidemic, and it reads like a detective novel.

Well, it reads like a detective novel filled with geneticists, biochemists and endocrinologists, folks who seldom appear as characters in your standard mystery story.

But it is a mystery story, one which is partially unraveled in the course of the book, but which has, as yet, no real ending. it seems that every time scientists think they have found the gene, hormone or neurotransmitter that is the root cause of obesity, it turns out that they are only partially correct. The biological processes which controls appetite, hunger, satiety and fat storage are immensely complex, and attempts to control these processes by pharmaceutical means have all failed. I believe that this is in large part because our bodies are programmed to get fat in times of plenty, which is what we have been living in for the past several generations in the US. This programming is meant to protect humans from the stresses of an eventual famine, but since we have lacked one of those for more generations than I can count back, our evolutionary programming has led us into a serious health problem.

This makes the book sound like it is unremittingly depressing, and for some folks, I suppose it would be. But as for me–I found the narrative to be so fascinating that I could overlook the fact that much of the book is pointing out how seemingly inevitable it is that humanity will just continue to get fatter and fatter over the next twenty years, Genetics and biochemical bodily processes fascinate me, so I can get absorbed in the relatively few success stories in the book, and let the positive feelings they generate help me get past the depressing news contained in the rest of the narrative.

On the other hand–I have to say that it is somewhat comforting to me to know that some of my assumptions that body weight is in large part controlled by genetics. I have family members who have suffered and struggled with their weight over years, and not surprisingly, they are all directly related to one very obese individual–they are here children and grandchildren. Growing up seeing these kids start out at normal sizes and weights, then over time, in adulthood, gaining more and more weight, I always assumed that it was a familial trait. Especially since most of them didn’t eat that much more than the rest of us did, and some of them ate less.

All in all, it was a really interesting read, and is well worth the effort and time it takes for a layperson to get through all of the biomedical jargon.


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  1. Did they discuss the possible effects of ethnicity? I wonder if that matters. Differing environmental conditions might have prompted our ancestors to put on fat for long winters or for dry seasons, but I don’t know.

    You might be able to correlate it with the amount of fat/starch in a culture’s diet. The existence of the pierogi, for instance, would suggest that Eastern Europeans need carbs for the winter. 😀

    Comment by Elizabeth — September 22, 2009 #

  2. If you really like learning the science behind obesity, I would recommend you next read Big Fat Lies by Glenn Gaesser.

    Comment by En — September 22, 2009 #

  3. Elizabeth–ethnicity studies have been done and are dealt with in detail in the book. Folks whose ancestors lived in areas prone to repeated, prolonged famine tend to have bodies that want to gain and hold onto fat reserves–because the folks who survived those old famines were the ones whose metabolisms and endocrine systems were able to maximize the potential of any caloric intake that came their way.

    Those of African, Asian, Polynesian and Hispanic descent are among the folks whose bodies will, when given half a chance, build up fat reserves.

    En–that is on my reading list, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

    Comment by Barbara — September 22, 2009 #

  4. Another very interesting book, if you haven’t already encountered it, is Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata.

    Comment by Lexica — September 23, 2009 #

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