‘A good news story’: don’t blame your genes for your weight
The car crash voyeurism of watching morbidly obese people being heckled on The Biggest Loser, no not for our entertainment, but for their health (ahem), has taught scientists a thing or two.
One of these things is that, after the show ends, contestants struggled to maintain their weight loss. As one contestant put it, “we’re all fat again”, but as researchers discovered it was not for a lack of trying.
While they continue to try and unravel the reasons why our bodies fight against weight loss, even when our health would benefit from it, researchers in a new study say don’t bother blaming your genes.
Those who carry the so-called obesity or FTO gene, are about 70 per cent more likely to be obese, but it does not prevent people from losing weight, said the lead author of the study, John Mathers, professor of human nutrition at Newcastle University.
“You can no longer blame your genes. Our study shows that improving your diet and being more physically active will help you lose weight, regardless of your genetic makeup.”
This is significant when you consider that, according to Obesity Australia, up to 90 per cent of the population is predisposed genetically to being overweight and obese.
As it stands, 63 per cent of our adult population is overweight or obese with 28 per cent classified as obese. Within the next 10 years, more than 70 per cent of Australians are expected to be overweight or obese.
Mathers and his team examined the data of 9563 adults who were enrolled in randomised controlled weight loss trials around the world to find out whether the gene acted as an impediment.
“We were excited to find that people with the risk version of FTO respond just as well to weight loss interventions as everyone else,” Mathers said in a statement.
Dr Joseph Proietto of the University of Melbourne, a world-renowned specialist in obesity management, adds that it is not just the FTO gene, but other genes that contribute to obesity.
Regardless, he says: “The problem with weight loss is not actually losing it, it’s keeping it off.”
The reason, Proietto explains, is that the levels of nearly all the hunger-regulating hormones that we have change when we drop weight from our body’s set point.
What determines this set point? “As you gain weight you make more leptin, because leptin is is made in fat cells,” Proietto says.
So when we then lose weight and the leptin levels, which control hunger, fall, we become more hungry than we were before and therefore likely to regain weight despite good intentions.
Is it a hopeless cycle? The experts don’t believe so.
“The hope is that irrespective of their genes … you can lose weight,” says Proietto, who has written a newly released book on his findings called Body Weight Regulation, and who recommends practicing mindfulness with eating.
So does Sandra Aamodt, the author of Why Diets Make Us Fat: The Unintended Consequences of Our Obsession With Weight Loss.
“If dieting doesn’t work, what should we do instead? I recommend mindful eating – paying attention to signals of hunger and fullness, without judgment, to re-learn how to eat only as much as the brain’s weight-regulation system commands.”
And while Proietto also says people need to eat less, what we eat also makes the difference, both hormonally and epigenetically (the potential for environmental factors to switch genes on or off).
According to Harvard’s Dr David Ludwig, we can reset our “set point” by minimising processed foods and carbohydrates and filling up on wholefoods including vegetables, fruits, whole grains and good fats.
“Cutting back on calories won’t do it,” Ludwig says. “That doesn’t change biology. To change biology, you have to change the kinds of foods you’re eating.”
It is this ability to affect change in our health regardless of our genes, that gives us power.
The the latest study simply adds to that understanding, says associate professor Catherine Suter, the head of epigenetics at the Victor Chang Research Institute.
“What this study shows is that risk conferred by carrying the variant is not a fait accompli – the risk can be modified by diet and exercise,” says Suter. “Sounds epigenetic, doesn’t it? Or maybe it just means that the effects of the variant are actually quite weak and can easily be overridden by a modified lifestyle. Either way it is a good news story.”
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