Breaking the Cycle of Intergenerational Obesity

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By Alex Haley

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There is a misconception that obesity is linked to lack of self-control but science suggests it could also be genetic.

I was born into a family where obesity is the norm. My grandmother, my father and all of my uncles were obese. Was I fated to follow the same pattern? Is one destined to be fat? DNA determines the color of your eyes and your skin, but according to scientific research, it also can have a significant impact on the number of pounds you pack around.

Is there such a thing as a fat gene?

There is a common misconception that obesity can be attributed to a lack of self-control and willpower, but science suggests it could also have something to do with genetics.

In January 2009, Dr. Leibel at Columbia University published an important paper in the journal Nature Genetics. In it he explains how body weight isn’t only determined by food intake and exercise; genetics also play a role – the good news is genetic fat can be lost.

In the study, Dr. Leibel and his team of researchers discovered that people with two copies of a certain gene weighed an average of 22 pounds more than those without it. That’s just one genetic variation out of approximately 30 million possible variations! It is truly astonishing to know that something as seemingly inconsequential as a gene variation can have such an impact on human weight.

However, the presence of this genetic variant is not enough to drive someone into obesity; there are environmental influences that come in play too. The gene alone will only predispose you towards obesity but if your environment facilitates it (i.e., bad diet and lack of exercise) then you will also become obese.

It’s like the old adage, “Genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.”

The important thing to remember is that obesity isn’t necessarily your fate; no matter what genetics say there are always things you can do to prevent or reverse it — especially if you start early in life.

This sets the stage for a new study out of Columbia University which shows that children born to overweight parents are at risk of obesity themselves, even if they aren’t fat as infants or toddlers. This is just further proof that environment plays an important role in determining whether someone becomes obese or not.

What is a normal weight anyway?

The standard for what is considered a normal weight has been skewed drastically in recent years thanks to the obesity epidemic. It’s time we change our definition of “normal” so that it reflects reality, not media hype and advertising gimmicks designed to sell us more food than we need or want!

So how much should you weigh?

The body mass index

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published the standard Body Mass Index (BMI) chart that helps give guidance as to what a healthy weight should be based on height. It was developed by Dr. William W. Foege, former director of the CDC, in cooperation with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company data from 1983-84 statistics.

The BMI is one of the best (if not the best) tool we have to assess an individual’s risk for diseases related to weight. It has been thoroughly researched and proven accurate in determining health status; this chart was created using data from studies that followed people long term — for up to 20 years!

A healthy BMI range for women is between 18-24, while for men it is between 19-25.

It’s the fault of the FTO gene!

There’s one gene that’s getting a lot of attention lately, the pesky FTO gene.  The FTO gene is the only known genetic variant that has been found to increase risk of obesity. More importantly, it also increases our risk of becoming obese across all ethnicities and populations studied so far.

One study found that people who had a genetic variation of the FTO gene were 70% more likely to be obese than those without it.

This particular gene comes in two forms, a long version (FTO-L) or short version (FTO-S). If you have two copies of the FTO-S version, you’re more likely to be obese than someone who has two copies of the long variant. This gene works by increasing your appetite and also impairs activity in part of your brain that enables us to control our impulses (i.e., frontal lobe).

But if this is one genetic variation that can predispose us to weight gain, what are the other ones?

That same study that found that people who had a genetic variation of the FTO gene were 70% more likely to be obese than those without it also found that people who had a high score of the DRD (dopamine receptor D gene) were over 50% more likely to be obese as well. However, this was only true if they also had the FTO gene variation and lived in an environment with poor dietary choices and low opportunities to exercise.

The DRD gene is connected with our brain’s reward center, which gives us a pleasurable experience when we eat tasty food or do activities that involve movement, such as exercising and sex. In the environment of modern Western societies, this means people are more likely to be obese because there is an abundance of cheap, tasty food and a lack of time to be active.

Research has also shown that children who have genetic variations in the glucocorticoid receptor gene are at higher risk for weight gain if they live in an environment with high levels of stress. In other words, this means that people who face more stress will find it harder to lose or maintain weight control.

People with this gene variation also tend to be more sensitive to stress and find it harder to cope, which contributes to their risk of excessive weight as well.

However, there is no “fat gene” that will automatically determine whether we become obese or not; our genes do influence our behaviors and dietary choices but they are only one part of the puzzle.

Gestational diabetes and how it affects weight gain

Weight gain is a common problem for pregnant women today. In fact, it has been said that more than half of all women gain an excessive amount of weight during pregnancy! This can be very dangerous to the baby as well as the mother-to-be and often leads to some health problems after birth if nothing is done about it.

In addition to all of the environmental factors that contribute towards weight gain, it’s also important to understand how a woman’s health can influence her unborn child.

Most importantly, if a mother has diabetes during pregnancy (gestational diabetes), there is an increased risk for her baby being overweight or obese as they grow up. This is because excess weight gain during pregnancy increases the chance that a mother’s blood sugar will not return to normal after giving birth, which can lead to diabetes.

Once a child is born and becomes an adult, if they have a genetic predisposition towards obesity or their parents are obese, it makes it easier for them to become overweight or even develop Type II diabetes. [source]

However, there is good news! If you are obese or overweight and become pregnant, losing weight and eating healthy before becoming pregnant can reduce your child’s risk of obesity by up to 20%.

This means that even if a mother has diabetes during pregnancy (gestational diabetes), maintaining a healthy BMI will still lower the chances her baby will carry excessive weight as they grow up.

Is your DNA more important than your lifestyle when it comes to weight?

Of course not.

Do you have a gene that predisposes you to obesity? Maybe, but only if your environment facilitates it as well.

We can break the cycle of intergenerational obesity by eating healthy and exercising regularly no matter what genetics say; we are in control of our own destiny! Breaking the cycle is doable.

Ways to break the cycle of intergenerational obesity once and for all

One of the most challenging things about being overweight is the way it affects our children. Now, doctors are beginning to recognize that part of the reason for obesity can be hereditary, meaning parents who are obese may also have obese kids.

This cycle has been going on for generations now and no one seems to know how to break it once and for all. What if there was a way to create healthy eating habits in your family from the start?

Portion control, proper meal planning and cooking at home will all help you take back control over what goes into your mouth.

It’s much harder for children to eat unhealthy when they are actually involved with making their own meals!

Creating a strong support system is also important. Being obese is almost always a result of being overweight for quite some time, which means it’s often hard breaking the cycle when you are in it alone. Having someone who can relate and cheer you on never hurts!

Making smart choices about your lifestyle now will help ensure that your kids make healthy decisions too down the road.

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about the author

Alex Haley is a specialist in bio-information and operations. Alex has an interest in the field of genetics, with a focus on genome sequencing. When not working, Alex enjoys reading about scientific developments that may be relevant to her work or studies. When she's at home, she spends time with her family and friends. She also likes to read books about science fiction and fantasy worlds where anything is possible!