I have never believed that fat is genetic. Yes, some of us have a higher metabolism than others, which is nice for those people. However, it is extremely unlikely that you have a medical condition that would cause you to be fat. A low percentage of people actually have even mild thyroid issues, and the number of people whose thyroid problems would actually have a significant impact on their weight is even smaller, and smaller if you take out the people who have an overactive thyroid that would cause them to lose weight.
If you do have a thyroid disorder or other medical issue that would affect your weight, I can guarantee that’s not your biggest concern. On the other hand, diseases caused and aggravated by obesity and unhealthy lifestyle choices are extremely common. In fact, medications related to those issues are the most commonly prescribed options in the US.
Personally, I have fought the battle of the bulge. I know it’s my own fault. Most of the foods I like are healthier, but I have weaknesses, I sometimes eat too much, and I don’t exercise like I used to. Getting older, I should be exercising more, and I don’t. Still, I wouldn’t be defined as obese.
Researchers, like me, have focused on behavior. Smart researchers know that Americans face many of the same metabolism and medical issues (in relation to weight) as any other country, and yet other countries don’t have the issues with obesity that we face, especially in certain states and communities.
Now though, researchers are starting to focus on personality. Could your personality, which might lead to other types of excess in other cultures, actually make you fat? The trait that immediately comes to mind for me is an addictive personality. You can be addicted literally to anything, and why not food? In another society where you might learn early on that excess weight is not acceptable, you may instead pick up a cigarette habit (which is on the rise worldwide). In the US, a lot of focus is put on food, which could make addiction that much easier.
Yes, we learn bad habits over time, but a personality issue could simply aggravate that. Over 50 years, researchers have followed people, monitoring health, weight, and other factors. Interestingly, personality and even the big 5 are strongly linked to obesity, at least among Americans. Those who are more neurotic and prone to anxiety and aggression are more likely to hold onto more weight. Those who enjoy taking risks (possibly those who are more open to new experiences) are more likely to gain weight.
Of course, one could argue that those with high neuroticism are also prone to eating disorders. Therefore, if you were to average it out, high neuroticism could just lead to weight problems in general on both ends of the spectrum.
Likewise, those who are seen as cynical and competitive tend to pack on the pounds. Think about men you see on Wall Street or as super fans at football games. There are a lot of obese people out there. Yes, tailgate parties don’t generally focus on healthy food, and one could assume that it is because they are fat that they emulate and love to criticize athletes who are doing things they most likely never could.
The most powerful trait though was impulsiveness. An impulsive person takes risks, and they are less likely to think before they do. In other words, in relation to food, if they see something good, they are more likely to just eat it without thinking about the long term effects. If they get involved in an exercise program, they are less likely to stick to it, instead opting to do other things that seem more exciting at the time. People with impulsive tendencies were more likely to carry an extra 22 pounds. Losing weight is a continual process that you have to focus on to some degree all the time. If you see a buffet table and just jump in, and you can’t follow through with long term plans, obviously you’re going to have trouble losing or maintaining a healthy weight.
Is Culture Important?
There are some who theorize that culture does have a huge impact on personality, even defining it. While I don’t agree that culture completely defines personality, one can’t deny the connection. Many Asian cultures tend to run much thinner because food is often healthier, many use metros and other public transportation requiring more exercise automatically, and the culture expects it. If you are fat, you are much more likely to be ostracized and looked down upon.
In the case of this particular study, like many others within the US, the distribution was fairly bland. Yes, they had as many females as males. However, most of the participants (71%) were white, highly educated, middle class individuals. This is not a fair representation to assess the effect of cultures, whether subcultures within the US or completely different cultures from countries across the world. Maybe this explains white middle class problems in one area of the country. However, maybe even people without these issues fight obesity in certain cultures, because they are taught that food is central and they simply have to eat and eat unhealthy foods. Those types of habits learned in childhood are hard to break to say the least.
Either way, people of all cultures seem to struggle against crash dieting and other issues with weight. I know of at least one Asian star who has been known to lose weight by going on a boiled egg diet. To me, this simply seems far from final or conclusive, especially across different cultures.