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  • Debi Stafford

Obesity, Part 2 - Genes & Obesity

Last week I discussed my own struggles with obesity, what obesity is, the increase in obesity, and that understanding we need to make a change is the first step.


Let’s talk a little bit about the genetics of obesity. Research is finding more and more associations between genetic variants and obesity. The way researchers determine genetic associations is they take a gene of interest and look at a number of people who have obesity and compare it with those who are slender. When researchers find a higher number of people with obesity with a specific variant, there is an association. And usually, researchers will investigate further to confirm their findings and what might be done to compensate for the genetic variant.


With genes, we have mostly the same genes but different variants. Variants are when it’s the same gene but the arrangement of the DNA may be slightly different. We are each given a gene from our mother and a gene from our father for every part of our bodies. We all have 2 copies of the MTHFR gene, as an example. We may have one of the “ideal” MTHFR variants and one “bad” variant, 2 “bad” variants” or 2 “good” variants. We are beginning to learn about how genes influence our weight.


One such gene we all have but different variants is the MC4R gene. The MC4R genetic variant may be responsible for childhood-onset obesity. Here’s what the CDC says about this gene:


“Changes in MC4R that diminish its function are found in a small fraction (<5%) of obese people in various ethnic groups. Affected children feel extremely hungry and become obese because of consistent overeating (hyperphagia). So far, rare variants in at least nine genes have been implicated in single-gene (monogenic) obesity.”


Do you know what may be able to offset the ill effects of MC4R? Exercise. Why is that? Because MC4R variants can cause problems with not enough dopamine. We need dopamine, and dopamine makes us feel really good. Comfort foods increase dopamine. Exercise naturally increases dopamine. Those of us who feel especially good when working out may have an MC4R variant pushing us into obesity, especially if we seem to constantly need food to make us feel better emotionally may have the obesity variant of MC4R. This is yet another reason why getting kids moving and sports programs are vital to the health of our children.


Another gene implicated in obesity is the FTO gene variant. Here is a great article all about FTO. There is a low-risk and high-risk copy. We receive one copy from each parent. If we are lucky enough to have 2 high-risk copies, we are at roughly 70% higher risk to develop obesity at some point in our lives. These “bad” FTO variants cause us to make more ghrelin, a hunger hormone, than those who have the “good” variants. So when you see someone with obesity who is always hungry, their bodies are likely telling them they are hungry, even if we shouldn’t be. They aren’t just being glutenous or being a pig, literally, their bodies are telling them they need to eat. FTO “bad” variants also may cause us to make more fat cells than someone with the better variants. Do you ever feel you eat a little sugar and now you’re insatiable with your appetite while the person next to you can eat the same sugar & feel fine & full? Do you ever feel you have to eat very low calories and you’re still hanging on to fat? You may have FTO variants in your body to thank for that.


A third gene with a lot of research is the PPARG gene. This gene seems to contribute to obesity in a variety of ways. Monounsaturated fats with PPARG variants seem to reduce weight while polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) with the PPARG “bad” variant seem to put on weight quickly. If you have tried the keto diet with no success, you may very well have a PPARG variant that doesn’t do as well with fats outside of monounsaturated acids. This may also explain why the Mediterranean-style diet is so successful and healthy – it gives us plenty of monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and fish oils while reducing the standard American diet (SAD) full of PUFA fats.


A fourth genetic variant, and perhaps the most studied, is the CLOCK gene & pathway. These genetic variants are responsible for impaired sleep, “night owl” status, and weight gain, along with type 2 diabetes. Have you ever noticed that a lot of people with obesity like to stay up at night? I am one of those people. Lack of sleep can be attributed to the tendency for our CLOCK variants to release hormones at night when the release should instead be with sunrise in the morning, and thus the integrative diagnosis of adrenal fatigue. Have you ever been on a diet but didn’t sleep and got all kinds of discombobulated? Have you ever dieted hard but didn’t lose weight and, oh yeah, you get 4-5 hours of sleep per night? If you are a person who doesn’t sleep well and has obesity, then you might want to have a conversation with one of our practitioners regarding getting your sleep regulated.


These are only 4 of the obesity-associated genes I’ll discuss today. Fun fact: I have all 4 of these “bad” genetic variants. After reading my genetic report, I went from having a near life-long self-shame about not being able to easily maintain a healthy weight to praising myself that I hadn’t yet ended up on My 600 Pound Life. Growing up with grandmothers who cooked yummy foods with lard, Crisco, and other “PUFAs” likely contributed to family obesity because of us having these genes. Frequenting fast food full of PUFAs, and not being good enough athletically for high school sports, along with stopping exercise after graduating high school is a big part of the rising obesity in high schoolers and beyond.


Things that always seem to help with dieting no matter our genetic makeup: healthy monounsaturated fats, lots of vegetables, fruits, healthy proteins, exercise, and good sleep. It’s because these behaviors address in part the genetic variants that make us have obesity. There is some thought that many of these genes turn on when we experience trauma, whether it be emotional or physical trauma, ESPECIALLY IN CHILDHOOD!!! Let me say that again, childhood trauma significantly influences our genetic expressions. If your child has experienced abuse, the death of a close family member, parents who fight all the time, or a sibling with a severe disability such as autism, assume your child has trauma. If you ever see a person who has super obesity, it’s very likely it has nothing to do with being unwilling to push back from the supper table. When you see the excess weight, try to see past the stigma of a fat person and see the person is carrying the burdens of past traumas manifested in the adipose tissue.


I’ll close today with this: genes DO matter. Lifestyle DOES matter and changing our lifestyle CAN change our weight, even when our genes try to tell us to stay overweight. If a person has every bad obesity gene out there, the person can still work on being healthy. We can listen to our bodies for cues on which genetic variants we likely have and we can change up how we’re living for maximum benefits. After acknowledging we have a problem, we need to begin creating a plan to address it all. I’ll blog about it more in the coming weeks.


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