Most obesity experts will concede that if you are born to parents who are overweight or obese, it’s likely that you too will have weight issues. Certainly there have been recent studies providing insight to different risk factors, with some suggesting:
- If you gain excessive weight during pregnancy, you are more likely to have an overweight child
- If you are black or Latino, you have a higher risk of developing childhood obesity
- If you grow up in a poor rural or urban setting, you may have a higher risk of developing obesity
- If your parents are overweight or obese, your home lifestyle may predispose you to a higher risk of being overweight or developing obesity
Does inheriting obesity guarantee that you will be obese?
It’s been assumed that if your parents are overweight or obese, you will likely inherit genes that predispose you to developing weight issues or obesity. It is well known that a predisposition to excess fat lies in our genes. A new study by researchers at Max Planck Institute of Immunology and Epigenetics at Freiburg explored just how the genes responsible for obesity are actually regulated.
They found that there is an actual “switch” that can either turn on the propensity to develop obesity or to remain lean, despite the presence of the genetic material. And this switch is pretty black and white meaning, it either turns on obesity or turns off obesity. This switch does not allow for incremental weight gain or weight loss. It’s kind of an “all or nothing” switch.
Why epigenetics is so crucial to helping solve obesity
Current statistics suggest that about half a billion people worldwide have obesity. Certainly in the U.S., more than two thirds of adults are overweight or clinically obese, and more than one in 20 adults have morbid obesity. Current statistics suggest that more than one third of kids and teens are overweight or obese. It’s clear that beyond diet, exercise, medications, surgery we need additional possible treatment opportunities to intercept obesity, particularly very early on in life, possibly even in the womb. Understanding the epigenetics effects in metabolic disorders like obesity could be one avenue to provide prevention or treatments.
The researchers looked at large groups of genetically identical mice and their weight distribution patterns. They noticed something quite unique: Body weights were not random and they weren’t “all over the place.” These mice were EITHER lean or obese!! That meant that the very same genotype resulted in two very dramatically different and specific weight outcomes.
The conclusion was that the same genotype can lead to two very different and very stable outcomes. In this case the scientists noted that the network of imprinted genes was either very limited in its expression in the obese mice, or very strongly expressed in the lean mice. It confirmed the impact functionally of an imprinted network of genes and whether it is in switched on or switched off mode. Whatever position the switch is in - on or off - it remains so for life. That means that prior assumptions that the switch could be dimmed or turned up, meaning weight could go up or down in increments, may be flawed.
Do the study results hold in the human model?
The Max Planck researchers teamed up with a group of childhood obesity experts and analyzed adipose tissue from lean and obese children. A subset of the overweight kids showed altered expression of levels of a gene identified as TRIM28. The findings correlated with the mouse study and its on and off switch observations. The researchers suggest that these findings really impact perceptions about evolution. It also implies that an epigenetic switch can produce distinctly different phenotypes and that means that certain presentations might be considered the goal for health reasons. Research to learn how to manipulate the switch in certain diseases is likely the next step.
Can these epigenetics translate into treatments for obesity and other health issues?
Researchers certainly see the possibilities. If certain phenotypes or diseases have this switch phenomenon then epigenetic therapies might be able to turn them on or off, depending on which was the preferable position of the switch. And certain lifestyle behaviors might even turn the switch on or off, so diet, reducing stress, or developing drugs that can flip the switch might be a go-to therapy that could change your weight future with one targeted approach.
In the meantime
Currently the available and science-driven therapies that can help to prevent or limit weight gain, or help with weight loss include weight loss diets, exercise programs, stress reduction techniques, avoidance of inflammation-provoking foods and behaviors, support groups, weight loss medications, and bariatric surgery. The key is to develop a personalized program for yourself or your family, with the help of health professionals while we wait for epigenetic science to offer some new solutions.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”