Genetics and Obesity: Are Some People "Born Fat"?

Obesity is a prevalent problem in the United States of America, and researchers are constantly trying to explain the underlying mechanics that predispose millions of Americans each year to become dangerously overweight. A common belief is that some people are simply "born fat," and that their metabolic systems are ill-equipped to handle everyday foods.

Research on the so-called "fat gene," referred to as the FTO gene within the scientific community, has produced mixed results. Some studies claim that obesity and genetics are related on a neurological level, and that their impact on the human body stems from the ability–or lack thereof–of your hypothalamus to control satiety and food intake. Others claim that the effects of the FTO gene can be partially reduced by exercise and diet control. While the data is still inconclusive as of this writing, it appears that genetics do, indeed, have a significant impact on our body's ability to regulate its fat content, and the basis on which such activity occurs is highly variable.

A 2006 study examined the link between obesity and metabolism, and whether or not a potential correlation between the two could be explained by genetics.i Interestingly enough, the study discovered that, contrary to popular belief, genetics had little impact on the body's ability to effectively manage food in the digestive system. Metabolism also appeared to be relatively undisturbed by what has been widely accepted as the "fat gene." The researchers attempted to explain this phenomenon, noting that the most remarkable result of the study stemmed from the discovery of the fat gene's manipulation of pathways in the hypothalamus, and how they control satisfaction from food and hunger levels. It appeared that the brain's lackluster ability to align itself with normal human tendencies was more to blame for obesity than metabolism complications, as was previously believed. The researchers claimed that obesity was more a problem in the brain than the body, which directly challenges many people's belief that some individuals are born fat.

While the study established an interesting point, it failed to explore the potential to manage this issue with certain behaviors, such as strict diet regulation and regular exercise. Another study examined this problem from a preventative standpoint, and attempted to determine the effectiveness of a prevention strategy for individuals afflicted with the fat gene.ii Much to the general public's joy, the study confirmed that basic exercise could significantly impact the body's ability to soften FTO's effects. The data they gathered generated some interesting results, highlighting a 30% decrease in FTO's weight gain effects with just simple aerobic activity on a regular basis. While it doesn't completely undo the negative effects FTO can provoke in the brain, exercise has been proven to seriously limit its power.

Unfortunately, it appears that, despite this, many individuals who learn that they possess the FTO gene rarely feel the motivation to work against it. A fairly recent study determined that those who find themselves stricken with the knowledge of their FTO genetics often resign themselves to their "fate" and initiate binge eating that only serves to worsen their problems.iii The study's data noted that, after learning of their genetics, subjects consumed more food in the 90 days following the study than they had prior to it. While it may seem that resisting our genetics can be an exercise in futility, the aforementioned studies have proven that simply attempting to resist by exercising more often may be enough to keep yourself in a healthy enough condition to enjoy a fit lifestyle.

In conclusion, genetics have been proven to have some level of influence on the development of obesity. However, data and ongoing research has indicated that not only does the issue lie within the brain, rather than the metabolic system, but also that obesity can be controlled on a fairly significant level through a basic exercise routine and dietary supplements. While new studies are constantly being developed, the data seems to continually point to the fact that people aren't so much born fat, as they are born with the need to work a little harder to not be.
1. O'Rahilly, S., & Farooqi, S. (2006). Genetics of obesity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 361(11), 1095-1105. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1642700/
2. Klipelainen, T. et al (2011). Physical activity attenuates the influence of fto variants on obesity risk: a meta-analysis of 218,166 adults and 19,268 children.PLoS Medicine, 8(11), Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22069379
3. Bloss, C., Schork, N., & Topol, E. (2011). Effect of direct-to-consumer genomewide profiling to assess disease risk. The New England Journal of Medicine, 364(6), 524-534. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21226570
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