DEBATE: Are we limited by our genetic make-up when it comes to weight loss?

March 19, 2012, 1:57 pmwomenshealth

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Joe Proietto
Professor of Medicine at Melbourne University

Obesity is a significant health problem in Australia, with over 50 per cent of women overweight or obese, according to research in the Medical Journal of Australia. The main reasons are changes in lifestyle (think technical advances) and the availability of energy-dense foods. But how much is caused by genes and how much by the modern environment? The main evidence comes from twin and adoption studies, which demonstrate genes play a bigger role than environment in determining body weight. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which studied more than 670 twins, found identical twins reared apart had the same high correlation in body weight with their twin, irrespective of being raised together or not. Adopted people resemble their biological parents in body weight but have little resemblance to their adoptive parents who’ve fed them their whole lives. What’s more, body weight is physiologically defended at a preset point (the weight range our body fights to maintain), found another study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Most cases of obesity can be explained by the phenomenon of epigenetics, in which genes are altered permanently by an environmental factor, such as nutrition during pregnancy or what children are fed after birth. In future, we’ll need to focus our efforts on preventing children from becoming obese by discovering the environmental factors that are epigenetically imprinting children to become obese in the first place.”


Amelia Burton
Health and fitness coach

There’s no question that many people who diet put the weight back on, but to blame our genes isn’t accurate. Of course genes play a key role in our physiological make-up, but recent findings from the University of San Francisco, US, found lifestyle and environmental factors (diet, physical activity and stress) influence the way our genes express themselves. Until recently, we believed we’re born with a set number of fat cells (determined by DNA), and throughout our lives these fat cells grow or shrink. British researcher Professor David Barker found when a child becomes obese, their genetic expression shifts, and they’ll grow more fat cells that’ll stay with them for life. Similar research from Baylor College of Medicine, US, found if a pregnant woman is obese, the chance of her child becoming overweight is increased significantly. However, if this same woman, with the same genes, reduced her weight to a healthy level before she fell pregnant, her child’s risk of obesity falls. This is because we now know that certain genes can be switched ‘on’ or ‘off’ based on lifestyle choices.

We can’t blame genes alone for rising obesity levels. Many other factors affect our weight, such as reduced incidental activity, daily kilojoule intake, high fat, low nutrient food (nutritionally poor, kJ-dense fast food), as well as junk food advertising. In short, we can control the destiny of our waistline.”

READ MORE: DEBATE Should there be a fat tax?

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  1. bluebird10:41pm Tuesday 18th June 2013 ESTReport Abuse

    THIS IS FOR AUSTRALIAN WOMENS MEDICAL HEALTH customer service tried to purchase green coffee bean extract buy one get 2 free on Friday night for $31.99 my order was not accepted wwas told to get in touch with customer service guess what you cant get in touch with you guys please email with a number to contact you!!!!!!!!!

  2. Janma10:43am Monday 16th April 2012 ESTReport Abuse

    Professor Piller of Flinders University (South Australia) is I believe the ONLY researcher for 'fat diseases' in Australia, maybe some of our Doctors could find out from him about 'fat diseases'… I have to tell my Doctors to google my illness!! June is Lipoedema Awareness Month, but google will lead you to other fat diseases, eg Dercums, Mandalung and others… Make sure you are talking or targeting obesity and not a lymphatic disease!

  3. Julie B05:35am Sunday 25th March 2012 ESTReport Abuse

    Both are wrong in many ways. Joe ignores the fact that many people overeat, nothing to do with their genes. But Amelia totally ignores the massive effect of genetics and promotes the ridiculous stereotype that weight gain is purely the result of overeating and lack of exercise with a little bit of influence of the parents' weight. As an overweight person who eats healthy and exercise lots and in a physical job, I am surrounded by friends who greatly overeat and eat rubbish and never exercise and yet are so skinny they appear anorexic. Nor has my weight effected my daughter who is the same as me before I became ill and gained weight from medications - my daughter is skinny, healthy and fit. Stop making assumptions based purely on a person's size about their eating and exercise habits.

  4. Louise P01:49pm Thursday 22nd March 2012 ESTReport Abuse

    Body weight is calories in vs calories out. The genetic component is our hormonal balances. These hormones balance our appetite and metabolic speed. Your hormonal balance can be approved with good health, but some people are destined to be hungier then others.

  5. steve04:21pm Tuesday 20th March 2012 ESTReport Abuse

    yes i believe it's in our genes, people who are on the heavy side have large children, you can see it in families.

  6. Bianca04:09pm Tuesday 20th March 2012 ESTReport Abuse

    I have not seen an obese animal without human intervention. It is just a thought, I put more weight (no pun intended) to the thoughts of Amelia. The Prof of Medicine states that environmental factors drive genetic changes, so the overeating by the parent becomes the cause of obesity in the child. That suggests personal responsibiilty to me. I had an obese parent by her own choice, not a victim of epigenetics or whatever term we may use to describe self inflicted genetic changes..


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