Obesity is clearly a widespread epidemic that affects millions of people across the globe. Unfortunately, our society has a tendency to avoid discussing the most prevalent and serious societal issues, offering up the righteous excuse that such topics are too “offensive” or “inappropriate.”
Even worse, the only references we make to such issues tend to involve blaming individuals for their unfortunate plights. It’s her own fault she’s fat; she should stop hitting the donuts and get her butt in the gym! How many times have you heard, or even said, something along those lines?
Well, let me give you a much needed wake-up call. Like most things in life, it’s not that simple. While it’s true that one’s environment, lifestyle and diet have a significant influence on weight, there has been extensive scientific research in recent years which brings to light a much more powerful, underlying factor in the great weight debate: genetics.
“Genetics are responsible for [at least] 50 percent of all obesity cases,” said Professor Paul Zimmet, an international diabetes and obesity expert from Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia. But he’s certainly not the first person to come to that conclusion.
The genetic aspect of obesity has been explored in many studies in such prestigious institutions as the University of Cambridge and UCLA. These experiments, which involved monitoring the weight of mice born with a mutated version of a specific gene, proved that various genetic mutations prevented the animals from burning fat calories and even increased cravings for high-fat foods. From the U.S. to England, the repetition of this study with groups of human participants revealed that we suffer from a similar problem.
According to a British study, obesity runs in families, first and foremost, due to heredity. Individuals with two high-risk copies (one from each parent) of the FTO (Fat mass and obesity- associated protein) gene are predicted to be 70 percent more likely to become obese than others. The essential problem is that these genes cause a deadly combination of a slow metabolism and a desire to eat more fattening foods.
But perhaps the most well-known genetic causative connection to obesity is “leptin,” often called the “obesity hormone.” If one’s leptin levels are too low, the body goes into starvation mode, causing one to both store extra fat and need excessive calories. With obese people, scientists currently believe that there is a level of leptin-resistance at play because these people are clearly not getting the chemical signal to stop eating.
Personally, I have struggled with fluctuating weight all of my life. With a massively slow metabolism and a seemingly insatiable desire for the most caloric foods, it severely wounds me when people tell me to simply “stop eating” or “exercise more.”
It is my belief that certain people are predisposed to various conditions in life, and weight is one of them. According to extensive and on-going research, genetics provide the foundations of our behavior. Perhaps that overweight gentleman you mocked on the bus eats much healthier than you and does not live a sedentary lifestyle but rather is locked in a constant battle with his own body against mutated genes wreaking havoc with his ability to burn calories. Maybe that chubby girl you scoff at has an actual genetic disease like Prader-Willi syndrome or polycystic ovary syndrome.
My point is, society needs to realize that the reasons for obesity are just that – reasons plural not singular. Multi-layered and complex, there is no exact cause of widespread obesity, and genetics certainly cannot be entirely to blame either. However, I believe that it is thoroughly irresponsible for us to blame overweight people for something they do not have complete control over. In the words of Dr. Francis Collins, director at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, “Genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.”