Some experts say that America is experiencing an unparalleled obesity epidemic. Right now, approximately 42% of the population of the United States can be classified as obese. When looking at children under the age of 19, the statistics get even more alarming: 19.3% of children aged 2-19 are obese, a number that represents about 14.4 million young people.
Doctors and healthcare workers are desperate to help Americans tackle the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, it is a complex issue that requires a complex and multi-faceted solution. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have listed a variety of strategies to prevent and manage obesity, which include:
- Local and state programs offering public health recommendations
- Community efforts to support healthier eating
- Encouraging physical activity
- Tips for parents on childhood obesity
- Better screening tools to help prevent obesity and manage risk factors
One fundamental cause of obesity that remains enigmatic is our genes. As different ways of identifying and analyzing genetic patterns are discovered, this could help lead to a better understanding of our DNA, allowing Americans to tackle obesity in a new way.
Today, we’ll outline the various risk factors for obesity, including genetics, and discuss how this knowledge can help us make more informed choices about our health.
What is Obesity?
Obesity is a complex disease characterized by an excessive amount of body fat that impairs an individual’s health. Carrying around this much weight is damaging to our bodies, and can increase our risk factors for other serious diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, and some types of cancer.
Obesity can also exacerbate certain conditions, including COVID-19. Individuals with obesity are at increased risk of developing severe symptoms of coronavirus, leading to chest pain, shortness of breath, and even breathing problems that may require the use of a ventilator.
Many physicians use a metric known as body mass index (BMI) to diagnose obesity. Measuring BMI requires a simple index of weight for height and is intended to quantify general tissue mass, not evaluate a person’s health.
By comparing your weight and height, your doctor will quickly generate a numeric BMI. If your BMI is over 25, you are classified as overweight. If your BMI is 30 or more, you are classified as obese.
Even though many physicians and researchers are backing away from the widespread use of BMI, it is still the metric most commonly used to diagnose obesity today.
The Causes of Obesity
Many different causes and risk factors have been identified as impacting obesity. The most common are lifestyle choices and behaviors, community environment, and genetics.
Lifestyle Choices and Behaviors
Every choice we make, from the food we eat to the physical activity we take part in, influences our health. Individuals who don’t burn as many calories as they consume will typically gain weight.
However, the types of food that we eat can also have an impact on our risk factors for obesity. For example, drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, especially those with high-fructose corn syrup, has been shown to lead to increased caloric intake, increasing an individual’s risk for obesity.
This link is especially significant in children. In one study published in The Lancet, every 12-ounce soda that was consumed by a child led to a 60% increase in the risk that they would become obese within 1.5 years.
It isn’t just our own personal behavior that can impact our risks for developing obesity. Our community environment, including our family life, also plays a role.
Although genetics does impact obesity (more on that next), it can be difficult to determine precisely how, since many of us, both consciously and unconsciously, adopt the behaviors that we’ve seen demonstrated throughout our lives.
Additionally, socio-economic factors play a huge role. It is harder to find healthy foods in some low-income or remote communities, leading individuals there to become increasingly reliant on unhealthy, high-calorie, sugar-sweetened foods and beverages.
The Genetics of Obesity
Even though it’s hard to strip the social, behavioral, and environmental factors away from the genetic risk factors of obesity, scientists and researchers have been trying to do exactly that for decades. The better we understand how our genetics influences obesity, the easier it will be to make positive health choices that lower our risk factors.
There are two different ways that your genes could influence your risk factors for obesity: monogenic mutations and polygenic mutations.
A monogenic mutation is a rare spontaneous mutation in a single gene that triggers a chromosomal abnormality that causes obesity. A few examples of this are the genetic mutations that cause syndromes such as Prader-Willi and Bardet-Biedl. An individual who is diagnosed with one of these syndromes will likely develop obesity as a symptom of their condition.
Another infrequent monogenic mutation occurs on the MC4R gene, which causes a decline in an individual’s melatonin receptors, which triggers consistent overeating. These types of monogenic mutations are quite uncommon.
Polygenic mutations that cause obesity happen much more frequently. Instead of being attributable to one mutation on a single gene, polygenic mutations are a combination of various mutations that together combine to make an individual more susceptible to obesity.
In the last 15 years, researchers have identified more than 50 genetic variants that could contribute to obesity. Some of these include:
- FTO – promotes increased food intake
- LEPR – helps inhibit appetite
- PPARG – stimulates the development of fatty tissue
- PCSK1 – regulates biosynthesis of insulin
Although in isolation their effect may be minimal, various combinations of these genetic variants is thought to have an outsized impact on an individual’s likelihood of developing obesity.
Even though our understanding of them is still vague, these factors do matter. In one important study that compared the BMIs of twins raised in separate environments, scientists found that inherited factors, rather than childhood environment, were more likely to influence an individual’s risk factors for obesity.
Is Obesity Genetic?
Although there are a variety of factors that influence an individual’s risks for obesity, it is undeniable that genetics plays a large role. Fortunately, as we learn more about our unique genetics, it will get easier to develop healthy habits in response. A great way to do that is through DNA testing from GenoPalate.
GenoPalate offers dietary DNA testing that isolates your genes and compares your genetic information to our database to determine how each genetic variant affects your nutritional needs and metabolism. For example, you’ll learn about your precise macronutrient ranges, and which foods offer you the best balance of vitamins and minerals. Then, you can use that information to make healthier food and lifestyle choices.
Curious about what GenoPalate DNA testing can tell you about your genetic risk factors for conditions like obesity? Learn more about our process here, then purchase a DNA test to try it for yourself today.