Is There Such A Thing As A Fat Gene?

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A few years ago much excitement ensued in both the medical and the general press surrounding the possible discovery of a ‘fat gene’ – for the first time in history we as a medical profession were to reassure the larger of our patients that there now existed incontrovertible evidence that their overweight was not their fault, and the sad fact was that they were simply helpless victims of an unfortunate genetic composition unintentionally passed on by their thoughtless parents. And while I would be prepared to say that for many people, their weight is not ‘their fault’, it seems that a single ‘fat gene’ is not the problem either.

There has always been a whole heap of evidence pointing in the general direction of a tendency towards overweight running in families but until this recent discovery it had all been rather circumstantial and the ‘bad genes’ theory was a great explanation, not least because the media could run with it and take the responsibility for the current obesity crisis away from poor Western lifestyles and blame it on, well nobody. It’s nobody’s fault. Hurrah!

As with all theories in the medical world, however, nothing is ever that simple. Families share more than genes. They tend to eat the same food, have the same attitudes towards portion control, second helpings, emotional eating, food ‘rationalisations’ (must get value for money at the ‘all you can eat’ buffet etc) and do the same amount of exercise – or lack of it. They live in the same geographical area, at least for the first several years of their lives, and a whole range of local factors can influence their chances of becoming overweight – for better or worse – including access to fast food outlets and public transport. They watch the same amount of TV, spend the same amount of time playing video games, the list goes on and on!

When it comes to considering genes of course, they have been around for a very long time. If obesity is all about genes then surely it would have been around for a long time too, wouldn’t it? And while a proportion of people have always been overweight or obese their numbers have dramatically increased in the last 50 years. The current thinking is that our increasing waistlines are developing because of the effect of our environment and our genes in combination. So our genetic makeup may have a lot to do with our weight, but mainly because our environment has changed and our genes are causing our bodies to react to this by gaining weight. With our love of large quantities of highly processed food – which is usually cheaper than the healthier alternatives – and sedentary lifestyles it is absolutely no surprise that most of us are at least overweight if not obese. And if we change our environment – change what we eat, when we eat, how we spend our leisure time, how we travel, for our example – then we can beat those particular genes into submission and be a healthy weight.

But now for the good news. There really is a ‘fat gene’. It is already known that there are such things as ‘thrifty genes’, these give people more of a tendency to store excess calories as fat than others, but they are not the same as a true fat gene.

The excitement a few years ago all started because some researchers found a gene that they named the FTO gene in mice. They found that mice with the ‘fat’ version of the FTO gene were dramatically fatter than mice with the ‘thin’ version and the race was on to prove that the same was true in humans, and before long it was announced that indeed it is. There is a ‘fat’ gene in humans and those with the fat version weigh more on average than the fortunate ones with the thin version. The disappointing part of this story, however, is that the weight difference is less than half a stone. Sorry!

So how should we react to this news? I spend a great deal of time talking about weight regulation with my patients and have lost count of the number of times I have heard very genuine, heartfelt pleas along the lines of not being able to do anything about weight because ‘my mother/father/sister (or all of them) is overweight, it’s just the way we are in our family’. I am still working on the best way to gently break the ‘sorry, that only accounts for about 6 pounds’ news to them but I am finding that people can use this information positively if they can just keep the right perspective. The first, usually very short lived, reaction is often one of disappointment, but I try and steer them towards using this as motivation instead of beating themselves up about it.

So if you are one of the many people who has struggled long term with weight management and have spent most of that time blaming any poor progress on the family you come from, could I suggest that this is an opportunity to be seized? Now, and possibly for the first time, you are armed with the information that only a few pounds of excess weight are due to your genes and the rest are absolutely within your control, or even better, in Gods control if you are developing your Spirit controlled appetite. Your genes may mean that you may have more of a struggle to shift the pounds than someone with different genes, but ultimately a healthy weight is within your reach.You are free!

And there is even better news. A genetic tendency towards gaining a few pounds does not make that inevitable. If you continue to eat in accordance with your Spirit controlled appetite and treat your body with the respect it deserves (balance freedom to choose what you eat with responsibility to nurture your body and exercise regularly etc), then you should find that even those last pesky few pounds disappear in spite of your DNA.

So please carry on walking the Fit for Life Forever walk (or run the run) and most of all enjoy the journey!

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