Illustration by Caty Bartholomew

"I often saw more flesh on a cudgel after a tinkers' fight than you'll see being carried on the whole of the McGullion family winter or summer," was a remark from a sharp-tongued neighbor I remember hearing in our kitchen as a boy.

And she went on to say, "Look at all you MacConnells! The whole lot of the men wouldn’t make one big strong man among the whole of you, not a pick (of flesh) on any of you, but most of you live hale and hearty into the nineties and nearly refuse to die altogether!"

I thought of that sharp observation the other day when the airwaves were dominated for hours by the international implications of a study on obesity worldwide. It appears that the human race in the developed world is getting heavier by the day -- even as millions starve elsewhere -- and we approach the point where we won't have enough food soon for the mouths feeding all those distended guts.

As about everybody knows by now, there are more obese folk in America than anywhere else on the globe. But despite all the recessions, Europe is rapidly catching up.

Being still able to comfortably wear the jeans I wore 10 years ago and more, and the shirts too, and remembering the neighbor's wise words, I am not disturbed at all by the report. But indeed there are interesting elements to it.

The modern slogan is that we all are what we eat.  I disagree with that.

Most of us, certainly here in Ireland, are strongly shaped by our genetics. That cargo is normally the heaviest contributor to our shape and size.

The wise woman was accurate, not just about the McGullion and MacConnell clans. She was delving into a universal truth, at least on this island.

I know men and women who have the appetite of mountain horses and who eat and snack constantly through the day but never gain an ounce of weight.

I know men and women, mostly womenfolk, who are constantly dieting themselves savagely, walking and exercising, swimming and cycling and spending hours of gym and spa time, and yet stacking on weight all the time.

God love them all. You know them too. Maybe you are one of them yourself.

I have a bit of advice for you if so. Dig down into the roots of the family tree on both sides of your family. Go as far back as you can. Learn as much as you can about your ancestors.

There will be wedding photographs from the past available to most of you. Study these very closely indeed. The bride and groom in their finery on the biggest day of their lives reveal a lot of evidence.

If he already has a double chin in his thirties, and barn door shoulders, note that down.  If she is robed in a fashion designed to conceal a certain portliness rather than sheathed in a revealing gown that was not by accident either. And there was no fast food outlets everywhere back in those times.

Face it, for good or ill, it is not just our spiritual innards that are templated by our ancestors. They passed down their body shapes as well to the most of us. It's all in the breeding, as the old countrymen used to say.

I think one of the cruel fundamentals of this world is that rich countries are able to feed their people so well that they become plump, and poor countries, with scarcity problems at about every level, have lean populations because good food is scarcer.

We in Ireland have been generally lean and wiry since the Famine disaster and since for obvious reasons. But even in the worst of times there would have been plump families because of their genetic factors.

Descendants of the Planters, for example, those with names like Butler and French and St. Leger, would always have been bigger and plumper, on the surface, because of the Norman background.

Another element in the equation would have been the hard labor imposed on much of the native Celtic population in the past, especially in the west of poor soils, just to wring food crops from less fertile soils to feed their always large families. Check your family history for clues in this area.

At the same time I have to say I have always been slightly shocked on trips over to the U.S. to see the amount of fast food which you eat on the hoof. That is not yet a European norm, though it is catching on fast in recent years.

Walking down New York and Chicago streets, I have seen more dogs and burgers and suchlike being devoured by passers-by than one would ever see in about any part of Europe.

And the consequences are immediately obvious in the huge waistlines of many. And the bums when you see the pedestrians from behind.

I think, as a very general rule, that if you are an Irish-American with an O or a Mac attached to your surname, a person with quite Celtic genetics, that you are more likely to remain quite lean irrespective of what your food intake is.

Illustration by Caty Bartholomew
You may well be doing all the wrong diet and lifestyle things, but it is likely that your genetics will protect you against the emerging curse of obesity. That is just an opinion but maybe an informed one since I heard the wise lady in our kitchen long ago talking about the McGullions and their lack of flesh.

Be very careful, finally, if you are either a Murphy or a Moriarty...