You may have been wondering about this for a long long time. I do too. If Palma and most of her family are obese, does that mean they have the “fat gene”? Is she destined to be fat? Or can she break the fate and lose the flab? The gym goers might say habit, but the mamak gang probably believe it’s genetic. So instead of just hearing rumors or discuss this over assumptions, let’s look at science!
I think this post can help people like Palma make better decisions while helping the rest of us understand what Palma is facing.
#1 Is there really a “fat gene”?
Several studies have found that Obesity can be caused by Mutation of Genes. This is called Monogenic Obesity. There is also “fat mass and obesity-associated” (FTO) gene, one of the obesity-related gene variant.¹ There are a few genetic variant that can cause this “common obesity” which is also known as Polygenic Obesity.² People who have this gene are 20 to 30 percent higher at risk of obesity.
“To date, more than 30 candidate genes on 12 chromosomes have been identified to be associated with body mass index.”
By 2008, studies have found eight monogenic genes and four polygenic genes linked to obesity.
#2: How are genes affecting us?
In a study, it is said that the FTO gene impacts our brain processes on energy balance.³ Which is why some people burn fewer calories at rest. Genetic mutation can also affect our appetite where one person can develop the desire to eat more, or satiety where one person may need to eat more to feel satisfied.
“In 2012, a study found that people genetically prone to obesity were more likely to experience a higher BMI when consuming a higher amount of sweetened beverages than their genetic peers who had fewer of these drinks. Similarly, in 2014, it is found that they are more likely to gain weight if they ate fried foods four or five times a week than those with the same genetic characteristics who cut or rarely ate the high-fat items.”4
Question #3: Can we control our genes?
Have you ever met twins? Well, there are two types of twins – Identical and Non-identical. Well, identical twins share almost the same genes while Non-identical share only about half. But I have met identical twins that turn out quite the opposite when it comes to weight.
Based on the studies, many people who carry the so-called “obesity genes” do not become overweight. Our genes only increase our risk of getting obese. It makes us go hungry more while burning fewer calories and decides where the fats would go. Most of us that struggles with overweight knows exactly what to do, but cannot sustain it due to the above factors. Therefore while it is going to be really hard to lose the weight, it is scientifically possible.5 Monogenic obesity, however, the mutation of a single gene, is harder to prevent but it is very rare.
The key is, to be active! If you have this gene and keep an active lifestyle, you can have a normal BMI. While the solution may sound simple, we should bear in mind that getting active may not be easy for some people due to illness, surroundings, work and family commitments. It is not helpful to criticize someone who struggles with obesity because the problem can be beyond willpower and laziness.
In short, obesity is both genetic and habit. Genetics will affect our habits, and our habits can affect our genetics.6
“Genes may have weak effects overall, but they could have stronger effects in certain groups of people who are exposed to certain environments.”
- Read this article from Harvard, Genes Are Not Destiny.
- More details about genetic in this 2011 study Genetics & Obesity: What Have We Learn.
- Human Obesity: A Heritable Neurobehavioral Disorder study.
- This Washington Post article written in 2017 discuss this issue too.
- This article tells you how you can fight obesity and you are not doomed.
- Epigenetic on/off switch for obesity.
- This professor and another one agree that environment will help in controlling obesity despite having the gene. Read here.
- If you know someone having a hard time to keep the weight off even though they have tried really hard, do read this entry: Cause of Obesity.
If you know someone who would benefit from reading this, do share!