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Is obesity in our genes?

According to many health experts, obesity has reached epidemic proportions. This is primarily due to our environment. In the United States, we have access to lots of high-calorie foods and we don’t get enough activity to offset the calories. But our genes and their relationship to our environment may also be a contributing factor.

It’s thought that some of our genes regulate how our body uses the energy we get from food. Scientists have been studying these genes to determine if they might determine who becomes obese and who does not. One thing that they have discovered is that there may be dozens or even hundreds of genes that in some way contribute to obesity.

One theory about how genes may contribute is referred to as the “thrifty genotype” hypothesis. The basis of this hypothesis lies in the fact that although genetics can change, that change happens over very long periods of time. In the distant past, where food was not as readily available as it is today, our gene makeup may have adapted so that we could survive famines. In essence, the body learned to fatten itself up more quickly during times of abundance and hold on to fat stores to get through lean times. According to this hypothesis, these “thrifty” genes may not have adapted to today’s abundant food supply.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, most people probably have some genetic predisposition to obesity, depending on their family history and ethnicity. But just having a genetic predisposition does not guarantee that a person will become obese. It’s likely the combination of genetics with an unhealthy environment that leads us down the pathway to obesity. 

Some of the things in our unhealthy environment that promote obesity include having food readily available in many places and at all times, a sedentary lifestyle that does not include enough physical activity, and consumption of highly processed foods, fast foods, and sugar-sweetened beverages. 

It may be a long time before research influences public policy to an extent that this unhealthy environment no longer exists. In the meantime, you can help yourself and your family to avoid obesity by choosing a lifestyle that includes healthier food and beverage choices and more physical activity. 

Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. It also is a factor for many other conditions so it’s important to reach or remain at a healthy weight. Please consult your health care provider to determine your ideal weight.  

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