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Attractive girl holding vibrant shopping bagsEver looked at a thin woman and thought, “lucky bitch?” Because even though you work hard to lose or stay at a certain weight, it’s tricky business. Although eating less and exercising more is supposed to make you lose weight, you always suspected dark forces were at play.

Is it possible that it’s not as easy as calories in vs. calories out? Because you’ve been doing that for years and it hasn’t worked. Scout’s honor, you swear you haven’t cheated.

Yet you see skinny people eat cheeseburgers and still look like that.*

When you have eaten far more cottage cheese and green smoothies than you can stand, but you still have your grandma’s thighs, it isn’t your imagination.

When you truthfully offer “I’m big boned” as a partial explanation for your weight, but you see others roll their eyes, it’s not your imagination.

“I’m big boned” is often viewed by others an excuse to not do the “hard work” and “sacrifice” it takes to lose weight. Because if you just “want it” enough, you can “achieve your dreams.” (Those sentiments were culled from the motivational quotes showing up in my Facebook feed – but all those quotation marks remind me of this Chris Farley sketch from SNL.)

Everywhere you look, there’s an unquestioned assumption that we have control over our appetite, our weight, and our health. This is despite evidence (both personal experience and research studies) to the contrary.

Lifestyle, in the form of nutrition and exercise, may affect your weight. Surprisingly, though, lifestyle is not the biggest influence. There are other factors that have an even bigger effect, and they may not be what you think.

Genes count! Throughout history, food was scarce. So those with the thrifty gene – whose bodies were particularly good at storing energy (AKA fat) – were more likely to survive. And like so many other traits, the thrifty gene was handed down through the generations.

The relationship between genetics and weight is still apparent today. For example, people who are adopted have weights more similar to their biological parents than to their adoptive parents. Weight is more heritable than things we more commonly think of, like heart disease, schizophrenia – and even IQ.

So the luck of the genetic draw is significant. This is why, in fact, the woman you view as a “lucky bitch” really is a lucky bitch. She would have been at a disadvantage in the past, though, because skinny people didn’t survive food shortages as well.

Genetic luck doesn’t just play into your weight. It also affects your experience in the world. Frankly, thin people are treated better in our society. Weight stigma can be overt, like online taunts and harassment. It can also be more subtle – like when your doctor inquires about your exercise habits, but doesn’t do the same for a thinner patient. (That is a direct example from my personal family experience.)

Just as there are many fat people who eat nutritious food and exercise, there are also thin people who drink multiple sodas daily, and don’t engage in physical activity. Drinking a Big Gulp is not health-promoting for people of any size. However, only a larger person will likely be called out for it.

Let’s stop assuming that people have total – or even much – control over their size, and treat each individual on their own merits. Let’s encourage everyone to eat more produce, eat less processed food, and move more. And let the weight settle where it may.

*Truthfully, though, you don’t know that the skinny person eating a cheeseburger isn’t also purging or exercising excessively. Or maybe she really is naturally that weight, but still hates her body.

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