The Truth About Obesity and Genes
“Blame your father.” Have you ever heard that phrase?
When I was in high school, I blamed my father (jokingly, of course) for being too SHORT. You see, I was 6’1” and wanted to play football at Stanford. My position was middle linebacker. I remember getting the call from the Stanford Defensive Coordinator, wherein he essentially broke up with me. Wondering why they didn’t want me, I looked at their roster, only to discover that every linebacker on the team was 6’3” to 6’4” and 240 pounds…no place for a “puny” 6’1” 210 pound 17 year old.
However, all hope was not lost. I actually ended up on a better team and got an opportunity to play middle linebacker for Utah in the Fiesta Bowl. My football career ultimately ended after college, though, because once again, NFL teams aren’t generally looking for 6’1” middle linebackers (I was good, but not that good).
In my late twenties, I once again found myself blaming my father, but now it was for being too TALL.
Athletically speaking, I was blessed with a second chance when I had the opportunity to compete as an athlete in the CrossFit Games. I’ve come to believe that CrossFit favors the shorter athletes; this theory is backed up by the fact that the average height of the men’s CFG champion is 5’8.5”, with no champions being over 6’ tall. Actually, this makes perfect sense because CrossFit Games are composed of many different tests of fitness, but weightlifting and gymnastics (both dominated by people who are shorter in stature) play a dominant role in the qualifying process.
By now, I’m pretty sure that I’ve made a compelling case that it’s my father’s fault that I was too short to play in the NFL and too tall to win the CrossFit Games. Since I’m on a roll, what else can I blame him for? What about Mom? She should probably shoulder some of the blame too, maybe even 50% since that’s how much of my DNA code came from her.
Get ready because I’m about to lead you down a rabbit hole that may offer some shocking revelations. But before I go any further, let me just state that as a mature adult, I take responsibility for my own actions. I don’t actually blame my father (or mother) for my athletic successes and failures. I have only thanks for how they have always given me the love, support, and opportunities that have allowed me to have so much fun and meet so many amazing people through athletics.
Blaming your parents is a waste of time.
This is true for two reasons. First of all, taking personal responsibility is a prerequisite for bettering one’s own life. Nobody achieves success and happiness by playing the blame game.
Second, if your genetics are really responsible for the way you are, then blaming your parents doesn’t work because they can blame their parents, all the way up the ladder. This gets into the philosophical realm of free will versus determinism.
This begs the question: are we pre-destined by our genes (determinism) or do we have a say in the matter (free will)?
From a behavioral standpoint, some kids are outgoing, whereas others are shy; does this mean they’ll remain that way, or can those traits be trained out of us? I believe that there are tendencies and traits of our personality which are determined by our genes, but that our choices and free will play into how those genes are expressed.
There are entire social sciences devoted to exploring the above, so for the purposes of this post, let’s stick to something slightly simpler, like our physical appearance. In cases like eye color, for instance, I think it’s safe to say we are stuck with what we were given. We can wear colored contacts, but the genes that determine our true eye color aren’t going to change no matter how badly we “will” them to.
What about body weight? As a naïve child I thought that overweight or obese people simply ate too much, and that their weight was the result of choices they had made. As an adult I’ve learned that it’s much more complicated, and a number of reasons factor into being overweight, including emotional and psychological damage, genetics, diet, gut bacteria (or lack thereof), sedentary lifestyle, depression, and hormone imbalances, to name a few. I still contest that overweight people can cut back on how much they eat and get down to a healthy weight, but it’s much tougher for some than others.
Here are a few things that are helpful to know about genetics and body composition and obesity and genes. First of all, where we come from (genetically) can have a huge impact on how we process different foods. For example, you may be more prone to things like lactose intolerance and celiac disease based on where your ancestors came from. Northern European descent often means that you’ll have an easier time digesting lactose in milk, as opposed to those whose ancestors lived closer to the equator. Thanks to studies of identical twins separated at birth, it can be said with certainty that there is indeed a strong genetic component to body weight. So…are we back to blaming our parents?
Regardless of what leads to obesity (lifestyle, genetics, trauma, etc), it is in every human being’s best interest to get down to a healthy body weight. Why? For starters, you’ll reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, T2 Diabetes, Cancer, Gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, gout and breathing problems. What if you could stop the cycle? Remember those “fat genes” you love blaming on your parents? What if you could make sure your kids don’t get them?
Allow me to share two articles which offer some unique insight on the subject.
The first article claims that obese women pass on boosted levels of certain lipids via the maternal blood that flows through the umbilical cord. The study cited found that obesity in mothers correlated with lower expression of genes regulating mitochondria and other genes regulating metabolism of lipids. Women who are health conscious and maintaining a healthy bodyweight, on the other hand, would avoid passing on the same risks. I can’t think of a single woman that wouldn’t find motivation in the fact that by taking care of their own health, they are helping their unborn child avoid a genetic pre-disposition to obesity and diabetes.
Don’t worry, ladies: the men are not off the hook this time. I have four children, and I have the upmost admiration and respect for women, and the extreme pressure that goes with growing a human being. It can feel like all of the pressure is on the woman, and that’s maybe the single greatest responsibility any human will ever face. I know that every woman out there wants her baby to be as healthy as possible, so it’s important for all of you men to get your butt in shape as well.
This next article is fascinating. Not only does the research indicate that obese men pass on “fat genes” in their sperm, but going further, researchers found that after losing weight, the (formerly obese) men passed on a different set of genes. The genes most affected by the weight loss pertained to brain development and appetite. By losing weight, whether through diet and exercise or gastric bypass surgery, nearly 4,000 epigenetic markers on the men’s sperm had changed.
Now, these studies are far from conclusive, and more research needs to be done, but this is the first step to proving scientifically what seems obvious through more anecdotal evidence:
- Obese people tend to pass on genes to their offspring that give them a predisposition for obesity.
- People who are a healthy weight don’t pass on the same obese genes.
- By losing weight before having children, obese men and women can break the cycle.
Regardless of your genes and age, if you are obese, you can lose the weight through proper nutrition, exercise, or through more extreme measures like gastric bypass surgery. It might be harder for some than for others, but it is worth the effort in the long term for your health and the health of your family.
Regardless of your genes, you still have a choice. Will you take action, or will you just keep blaming your dad?
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