A strange mix of genes and karma

I came across an interesting article this week published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (open access… whooohooo!) called “Causal beliefs about obesity and associated health behaviors: results from a population-based survey by Catharine Wang and Elliot Coups.

Here is an abridged version of the abstract:

“Background. Promoting the notion of genes as a cause for obesity may increase genetically deterministic beliefs and decrease motivation to engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors. Little is known about whether causal beliefs about obesity are associated with lifestyle behaviors. The study data were drawn from the 2007 Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS). A total of 3,534 individuals were included in the present study. 

Results. Overall, 72% of respondents endorsed the belief that lifestyle behaviors have ‘a lot’ to do with causing obesity, whereas 19% indicated that inheritance has ‘a lot’ to do with causing obesity. Multinomial logistic regression analyses indicated that the belief that obesity is inherited was associated with lower reported levels of physical activity (OR=0.87, 95% CI: 0.77–0.99) and fruit and vegetable consumption (OR=0.87, 95% CI: 0.76–0.99). In contrast, the belief that obesity is caused by lifestyle behaviors was associated with greater reported levels of physical activity (OR=1.29, 95% CI: 1.03–1.62), but was not associated with fruit and vegetable intake (OR=1.07, 95% CI: 0.90–1.28).”

Minutes before reading the article I sent a friend a CBC radio podcast called “How to think about science” from the show Ideas. It’s a really great interview with Barbara Duden and Silya Samerski about genes and popular culture.

Here is the snip from the CBC website and link to listen:
“When Danish botanist Wilhelm Johannsen coined the term gene, in the early years of the 20th century, he described it as “a very applicable little word.” And so it has turned out. Once a purely scientific and technical term, it has now spread into common, daily use. People speak familiarly of “my genes” or “your genes”, newspapers report the latest “gene find,” and an American company – 23 and Me – now offers anyone with a thousand dollars and a saliva sample the chance to have their genome mapped. Under the slogan “Genetics Just Got Personal,” the company’s website invites browsers to find out “what…your genes say about you.” But what happens when a scientific term migrates from the laboratory to the street in this way. What does the word gene signify in everyday speech? The question is posed by two German scholars: Barbara Duden and Silya Samerski. For several years they’ve been pondering what they call the pop-gene, the gene in popular culture.”

The next day I was speaking with my supervisor about my two recent and strangely connected finds and sent me an article called “Obesity Metaphors: How Beliefs about the Causes of Obesity Affect Support for Public Policy” by Colleen Barry, Victoria Brescoll, Kelly Brownell, and Mark Schlesinger published in the Milbank Quarterly. 
Again an abridged version of the abstract:

“Context: Relatively little is known about the factors shaping public attitudes toward obesity as a policy concern. This study examines whether individuals’ beliefs about the causes of obesity affect their support for policies aimed at stemming obesity rates. This article identifies a unique role of metaphor-based beliefs, as distinct from conventional political attitudes, in explaining support for obesity policies.

Findings: Including obesity metaphors in regression models helps explain public support for policies to curb obesity beyond levels attributable solely to demographic, health, and political characteristics. The metaphors that people use to understand rising obesity rates are strong predictors of support for public policy, and their influence varies across different types of policy interventions.”

The obesity metaphors they include in their model are based on a scale of individual blame ranging from: Sinful behavior, Addiction, Time crunch, Eating disorder, Disability, Industry manipulation, and  Toxic food environment.

Here is a little snip from their results:

“Agreement with the time crunch, eating disorder, and toxic food environment metaphors was positively associated with support for the policy requiring employers to give all workers paid time each day for exercise and to pay for a portion of gym memberships, whereas embracing the sinful behavior metaphor was negatively associated with support.”

I find it amazing that as research has advanced to mapping the human genome and finding genetic causes for things like obesity, our individual behaviours and public policies are almost simultaneously being modified by this research. Kind of reminds me of the country variations in math achievement that researchers have been shown in the literature for quite some time. This is all neato’ stuff and reminds me of the high quality thinking that I have to do if I want to be good at this researcher thing!

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