Are your genes making you overweight?
Why do some people find it harder to lose weight and maintain and health weight? This can be partly down to our genes. But does that mean that being overweight is inevitable for some? Read on to find out more.
Our genes haven’t caught up
Food is abundant and easily available for most people in the Western world. This is a recent phenomenon in terms of human existence. Unfortunately, our genes haven’t caught up with such changes. We are still genetically motivated to look for food.
Our genes still prepare us for famine. Unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors, most of us pretty much know when our next meal is coming. However, for some more than others, our brain still hasn’t quite caught on to this.
Just one more…
Ever found yourself squeezing in that dessert or bar of chocolate, despite being full after a meal? As we reach what should be satisfying fullness, we are in fact genetically programmed to search for more calorie-dense foods. We are fitting in that little bit extra to store in case of later shortage or famine. The foods we look for at this point are high sugar and high fat (calorie-dense), which is why we find we have a second stomach to squeeze in a dessert even after a large meal.
Our genes have not yet fully evolved to adapt to plenty. So if genes are preparing us for famine, but we have plenty of food – why are we not all overweight?
Everyone is different
Our responses to food, to the abundance of food, food choices, and how much we eat, are different. When presented with a plate of biscuits, do you resist, do you take one, or do you eat the lot? No one has the same set of genes, but individual genetics also drive the complex biochemistry in the brain.
Leptin, the satiety hormone
A hormone, known as leptin (produced by fat cells) is there to inform our brain how much fat we have – how long we can last in the wild. Leptin is often referred to as the satiety hormone. When it is at a high level because of the presence of many fat cells, it reduces appetite.
The problem is sometimes the process goes wrong. In rare cases there is a genetic defect in the appetite pathway to the brain. This can cause severe obesity. However, in most cases it is just about a difference in the genes, which makes us more or less motivated to continue eating, and therefore more or less liable to overeat.
When food is in abundance those with certain genes can find it more challenging to maintain a healthy weight. Such genes can:
· Increase hunger
· Increase calorie intake
· Reduce satiety (feeling full)
· Reduce control of over-eating
· Make you more likely to be sedentary
· Increase your tendency to store body fat
In answer then to the question: Are your genes responsible for making you overweight? Yes, but only in part. While occasionally a rare single-gene defect can cause severe obesity, in most cases genetics have been shown to be only partly responsible (40–70%).
If you can’t change your genes – change your environment
If you have a tendency to put on weight, what can you do about it? Weight gain need not be inevitable, whatever your genetic make-up. And it is the combination of gene differences within a less favourable environment (e.g. high sugar, high refined carbohydrate, high saturated fat) that is the problem. We can’t change our genes. But we can change our environment.
Change your immediate environment
Firstly you can change your immediate environment. Avoid buying unhealthy foods. Don’t have them in the house. That way you won’t be tempted. Be aware of foods that are your weakness. Be honest with yourself about your own eating patterns. Do you eat without thinking? Do you stress eat? Do you eat out of boredom? Can you control your own environment more?
Get professional help
Get help. Take on a personal trainer to encourage you to exercise. Seek help from a qualified practitioner who can help provide you with a nutrition plan and encourage and support you. And of course, be personally responsible for your own health.
And we shouldn’t forget society also has a responsibility. That is a longer and more complex problem to solve. To really tackle the issue we need to reduce the easy availability of high fat, high sugar, processed and fast foods. But that’s a topic for another time.
Dr Sharon Pitt is a registered nutritionist at Nutrition First, with 18 years’ experience. Nutrition First is a small and personal nutrition consultancy providing expert nutrition advice, based on sound scientific evidence.
At Nutrition First we see patients with a whole range of conditions at all stages of life, as well as helping those who simply wish to maintain and optimise their health.
Contact us at Nutrition First to see how we can help you.