We are all created by Hashem with our unique traits as determined by the genes and DNA the He gives us at birth. But does having a “bad” gene for weight mean that it is inevitable that you will be overweight or obese despite attempts to lose weight? The perception might be that the inevitable is indeed, the inevitable. However, with a better understanding of what genes really do and how we can overcome these predispositions, we can take control of our health even when we get unlucky with our genetic makeup. This is precisely what Adina thought when she came to us only a few months ago.
Adina is young lady who has gained weight since her last pregnancy. She exercises but the weight continues to climb. When we first met, she explained to me that she is somewhat frightened because other family members have steadily put on weight as they have gotten older and she wants to lose weight and keep it off. She mentioned the “genetic” factor stating that as other members of her family have also tried to lose weight and were unsuccessful, she felt that being overweight might be her lot in life. She was also very concerned because some of her family had become pre-diabetic and diabetic. I explained to her that although the cards may be stacked against her, with a little bit of hard work and just as important, SMART work, she can succeed.
Let’s first understand something about what recent research has shown about how genetics works. First and foremost, a bad gene doesn’t mean your predisposition is inevitable. Whether you are talking about weight, health or musical talent (or lack of), genes can be overcome. As a former musician I ran across an incredible number of very talented people who were great musicians, but I also worked with people who weren’t born with great ability but compensated by working harder. They practiced more hours and took more lessons and ended up as good musicians as a result. They overcame bad genes (lack of natural ability) for music–they created an ability that was not predetermined genetically. The same can be true for losing weight. We can create an ability to lose weight and overcome a genetic predisposition for doing so. Here’s what a few experts have to say based on recent studies.
Exercise physiologist Dr. Steven Blair, a professor of public health at the University of South Carolina, poses these rhetorical questions: “Are your genetics driving you to eat more? Move less? Genetics hasn’t caused the obesity epidemic because our genetics haven’t changed in the last 30 years.” While our genes are most likely not responsible for the prevalence of obesity, they may give us an advantage (or disadvantage), weight-wise.
Melinda Johnson, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says: “While genes strongly decide the shape of your body, peoples’ lifestyle (primarily eating too much and moving too little) is by far the main reason they are fat. Research has shown that our eating and exercise habits are heavily influenced by the people we spend time with the most, which is likely the main reason we see obesity running in families. Genes have an influence, but it’s relatively minor for the vast majority of humans.”
A 2010 study of twins was conducted at the Institute of Preventive Medicine at Copenhagen University Hospital. The purpose of the study was to determine whether your dietary habits or genetics and environment were more important is being associated with body fat mass and body fat distribution,. Danish researchers concluded that the evidence that genes could affect the proportions of the human body had been overestimated and genes couldn’t be used to explain the increase in obesity over the past 70 years. They also suggested that environmental factors, such as habitual diet, must therefore play an important role.
To better understand how genes work, let’s look at the field of epigenetics. The basis of epigenetics is environmental cues. For instance, if you live in a community where there is opportunity for consumption of fresh foods and people exercise, the genes that control your weight operate as they should, and you can enjoy a fit and healthy body. But let’s look at the opposite example: You start your day with a disagreement with someone, and then you run out the door without breakfast, you drive to your destination, arriving hungry. You sit down in front of your Gemara or at your desk. At this point, levels of acetylcholine and cortisol, both stress hormones that trigger hunger, reach very high levels. To undo your “pain”, you go for a fix of some food that is generally fatty, sugary or salty. The more this cycle repeats itself, the more it reinforces itself. You can’t change the genes you are born with, but you can change the genetic expression. According to Dr. Pamela Peeke, M.D., lifestyle choices powerfully influence genetic expression – and most important, they are passed on to children. We can use these principles to recover from food addiction by using an integrative Mind-Body approach.
It turns out that the number one way to overcome your genes is exercise. It turns out that one of the primary genes supposedly dooming us, called the FTO, can have its effect reduced by about a third by good exercise. “There are genes that appear to directly impact weight, but the effects are small,” said lead researcher Mariaelisa Graff, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “You still have a lot of choice over your behavior.” Concerning the study on this gene and the exercise factor, the results are not exactly surprising, according to Dr. Timothy Church, an obesity researcher. “This research shows, once again, that genes are not your destiny,” said Church. He is a professor of preventative medicine at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center. Church said regular exercise is particularly key in preventing excess weight gain in the first place — and in keeping the pounds off after someone loses weight. Exercise is less effective in helping obese people shed weight, Church said. Diet changes are the critical steps there.
Adina hasn’t been in our program for a long time, but she is already seeing results and overcoming her predisposition toward weight gain. We changed around her exercise program and added muscle building. She was already doing aerobics. But we also made a change in her aerobic program and worked in more intensity through high intensity interval training. We added stretching also and she now has a very complete and balanced program. In addition, she met our dietician 4 times and the results in only 5 weeks are astounding. It’s most likely true that Adina is predisposed for being overweight, but she is battling back against her genes and natural tendencies and it is bringing results.
Yes, we have to work hard to battle a bad genetic makeup and yes, it can be done. Is it worth the effort? Most certainly yes because it will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.