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Turns out that while environmental factors, like your diet and exercise choices, make up 50 percent of the obesity puzzle, genetics make up the other half, said Claude Bouchard, Ph.D., director of the Human Genomics Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research.
“Genetics is powerful,” Bouchard said. “It’s not caused by one gene or 10 genes, it’s caused by 100s of different genes.”
For example, one havoc-wreaking gene prohibits a person from knowing when they are full. The hormone that oversees this control is blocked, setting a person up for chronic overeating, said Dr. Dan Reardon, CEO and co-founder of FitnessGenes, a system of DNA tests and action plans.
Genetics lies at the heart of why two people can try the exact same diet and exercise routine and have totally different results. As a quick physics refresher, a person’s weight is governed by the first law of thermodynamics: the conservation of energy. Food is put into the body and converted into energy that is lost in 1000s of reactions in the body, AKA metabolism. Ideally, the body would burn off any excess “energy”, but humans are not perfect machines and some people retain and store more excess energy as fat.
“People at risk of gaining, even when they control diet and activity, don’t waste any energy,” Bouchard said.
We recently saw the power of genetics with the news that the contestants on the Biggest Loser quickly gained back their lost weight after cameras stopped rolling.
There are two schools of thought on what happens to the body after a very rigid Biggest Loser-style diet and exercise plan, Bouchard said. First, after a while, that strong willpower demonstrated during the weight loss begins to erode. Eventually, you go back to eating the same things and back to the same lacking exercise habits.
“The same amount of energy will assert itself and you will resume weight gain to go back to where you were,” Bouchard said.
Second, once you have been obese, your fat tissue has acquired metabolic properties that favor fat accumulation. Fat becomes your body’s default, in a way.
“Your adipose tissue defends this and resists fat depletion,” Bouchard said.
Reardon, who holds an MBChB – the UK equivalent of an MD, said this problem that goes far beyond the Biggest Loser.
“This is a problem that has existed for 30 years of dieting, being super skinny, and crash loading calories,” he said. “What we’re seeing with people who follow these diets is a loss of muscle tissue, metabolic dis-regulation, and significant metabolic consequences.”
Bouchard said the best bet for keeping obesity at bay is to never get obese in the first place, avoiding that metabolic change that craves obesity.
Since that seems unrealistic for those who have already gone down the obesity path, is there a way to revolt against your fat-loving genes? Yes, said Reardon, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
“The overall concept is that your genetics loads the gun, but it’s your lifestyle that fires it,” Reardon said.
With a system like FitnessGenes, people can work with the genes they’re given to reach the weight loss goals they desire.
Reardon said the team at FitnessGenes, which includes 7 Ph.D. researchers, can help get bodies back on track, beginning with a genetic test to set your personal baseline. For starters, one might have to make big changes to macronutrient (fats/proteins/carbs) intake, undo a micronutrient deficiency, or change a training regimen.
“Before you try to lose weight, you need to correct,” Reardon said.
“You’re not destined to be a certain way, you just have to work smarter.”