Mom, Dad, and Spinach

Patrika Tsai Health Guide
  • We often blame our parents for the problems we face whether it is how they raised us or what genes they passed along to us.  As the U.S. population becomes more overweight or obese, many of us wonder whether the weight problems came from Mom and Dad or the calorie-laden environment where we live.  There is now certainly public debate about the importance of the environment versus genetics in the obesity epidemic.



    Some genes have been identified that lead to morbid obesity.  For example, there are genetic mutations that cause a deficiency for a hormone called leptin which helps to signal satiety, or that you have had enough to eat.  When treated with leptin, people with this deficiency may achieve a healthy weight that they would not otherwise be able to reach.  Several other genetic mutations and syndromes exist such as Prader Willi or Bardet-Biedl, but these are extremely rare.

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    In other cases of obesity, if genetics is to blame, people are more likely to have a predisposition to gain weight.  Twin studies suggest that genetics may explain 40-70% of weight depending on the study.  Studies of adopted children show body types similar to their biological parents rather than their adoptive parents.  Genetics may affect your metabolic rate, the amount of spontaneous activity you do, and the way fat is distributed on your body. 


    Genetics is also involved in the amount of pleasure you get from eating.  Food stimulates pleasure centers in brain much like alcohol or tobacco.  Just as people may have a predisposition to becoming addicted to alcohol or tobacco, people can become addicted to food.


    Genetics may also affect how you perceive food.  For example, there is a compound called phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) that some people find bitter and others consider completely tasteless.  The ability to taste this compound is inherited.  People who can taste PTC may not enjoy eating certain types of foods such as spinach, tofu or other soy products, grapefruit, or cruciferous vegetables.  People who do not like these foods may be more likely to avoid them even though these foods are nutritious.


    Genetics plays a role in obesity in subtle ways such as by affecting how food tastes or more blatant examples like leptin deficiency.  However, the environment is also important.  In the majority of cases, obesity is multi-factorial.  Genetics and the environment may work synergistically to produce a particular outcome.  Being tall does not automatically make someone a good basketball player, but height and hours of practice on the basketball court certainly make a difference.  Mom and Dad may have passed on a predisposition to gaining weight easily, and there is little you can do to change that.  However, you can ensure that you lead a healthy lifestyle with physical activity and a balanced diet.


Published On: June 18, 2007