Does Genetics Determine Weight?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Health Current Events, Healthy Lifestyle, Obesity

Does Genetics Cause Obesity?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Overweight & Skinny WomenIt’s frustrating. Try as hard as you might, you just can’t seem to lose weight. Even worse you suspect that your friends – and maybe your doctor – assume that you are cheating on your diet. It just doesn’t seem fair.

Perhaps there is a simple explanation. Maybe your genes are keeping you from losing weight. Does genetics determine weight?  It has been hypothesized that some of us have a “thrifty” phenotype when it comes to weight loss while others are “spendthrifts”. The theory is that people with a “thrifty” phenotype hold on to weight more tightly when they are “fasting” (i.e. trying to lose weight) and gain weight more readily when they are “feasting” (i.e. eating excess calories).

The metabolism of the “spendthrifts” is exactly the opposite. They lose weight rapidly when fasting and gain weight slowly when feasting. Those would be all of your skinny friends who just can’t seem to understand why you have such difficulty losing weight.

Those experts who favor the “thrifty” phenotype hypothesis point out that it would have provided a tremendous survival advantage in prehistoric times when food was scarce. That’s why some of those same experts think that up to 80% of the population has the “thrifty” phenotype. When you couple the thrifty phenotype with the typical American diet and lifestyle it becomes easy to understand why we have an obesity epidemic in this country.

Is the “thrifty” phenotype hypothesis true? Could it explain why you have such difficulty losing weight? A recent study suggests the answer to those two questions may be yes. I will outline the evidence below.

Then I will address what are probably the two most important questions for you: “If the thrifty phenotype hypothesis is true and you have the thrifty phenotype, are you destined to be overweight? Is there anything you can do about it?

How The Study Was Designed

medical studyThis study (Reinhardt et al, Diabetes, 64: 2859-2867, 2015) was truly a remarkable study. 15 healthy, but obese volunteers were put in a metabolic ward for a total of 11 weeks. In the metabolic ward every aspect of their metabolism was closely controlled and measured.

  • They were given diets that were precisely calibrated to provide a predetermined caloric (energy) input.
  • Urine and feces were collected and analyzed in an instrument called a bomb calorimeter to determine calorie (energy) output.
  • They were limited to primarily sedentary activity for the duration of the experiments, and the temperature of the metabolic ward was maintained constant. This eliminated variation in energy expenditures due to activity and temperature.
  • Metabolic energy expenditure was calculated by placing them in a special room designed to precisely measure oxygen consumption and CO2 production by the subjects over a 24 hour period. Don’t worry about the details. Just know that this is the gold standard for measuring energy expenditure.

Here is what the subject’s 11 weeks in the metabolic ward looked like:

  • During the first 3 weeks the subjects were provided with a diet designed with just enough calories to maintain their weight based on their weight and sex. If weight gain or loss was observed the calories were adjusted accordingly.
  • During one 24 hour period in week 3 the subjects were place on a diet that decreased their calories by 50%, (defined as “fasting” in this study) and the resulting decrease in metabolic energy expenditure was measured as described above.
  • During another 24 hour period in week 3 the subjects were place on a diet that increased their calories by 200% (defined as “overfeeding” in this study), and the resulting increase in metabolic energy expenditure was measured.
  • During the next 6 weeks the subjects were placed on calorie restricted diet that only provided 50% of the calories they needed to lose weight.
  • During the final 2 weeks the subjects were placed on a diet designed to provide the calories needed to maintain their new weight, whatever it was.

How Does Genetics Determine Weight?

do genetics cause obesityThe results of the study were quite interesting:

  • All of the subjects lost weight, but the amount of weight loss ranged from 5% to 12% of the original body weight.
  • Their starting weight did not influence their rate of weight loss during calorie restriction, but their metabolic response to fasting and overfeeding significantly affected their rate of weight loss. Specifically:
  • The subjects with the smallest decrease in energy expenditure during fasting and the largest increase in energy expenditure during overfeeding (the spendthrifts) lost significantly more weight during the 6 week caloric restriction period (what most of us call a diet).
  • The subjects with the largest decrease in energy expenditure during fasting and the smallest increase in energy expenditure during overfeeding (the thrifty) lost significantly less weight during the 6 week caloric restriction period.
  • The amount of caloric restriction needed to lose one pound of weight ranged from 1,558-2,993 depending on whether the subjects displayed the spendthrift or thrifty phenotype. That’s almost a 2-fold difference.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

life-is-sometimes-unfairLife isn’t fair. You probably already suspected that. Your skinny friends actually do have a much easier time losing weight than you do. In fact, they may be able to lose up to twice the amount of weight with exactly the same amount of caloric restriction.

However, the good news is that weight loss is possible – even for you. Everyone in the study lost weight – even those subjects with the thriftiest phenotype. So the question becomes what can you do to lose weight successfully? Here are 5 simple tips.

#1: Don’t give up. Stick with it. Pounds may come off slowly for you, but this study shows they will come off. You just have to keep the faith and be consistent.

#2: Watch what you eat very carefully. The researchers in this study controlled every morsel of food the subjects ate. People always lose weight more rapidly when they are in a metabolic ward. My recommendation is to track what you eat daily using one of the many available tracking apps.

#3: Be consistent with your exercise. The subjects in this study were not allowed to exercise, but that is one of the best ways to increase energy expenditure. Aerobic exercise gives you a small increase in energy expenditure during and immediately following the exercise. Weight bearing exercise gives a long term increase in energy expenditure because it increases muscle mass, and muscle burns calories faster than any other tissue.

#4: Choose a diet that preserves muscle mass (High Protein Diets and Weight Loss ) while you are losing weight.

#5: Avoid all those diets with herbal and pharmaceutical stimulants. They are dangerous and they may just kill you.  Check out  Are Dietary Supplements Safe.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study (Reinhardt et al, Diabetes, 64: 2859-2867, 2015) did a very careful metabolic analysis and divided subjects into what they characterized as either a “thrifty” or “spendthrift” phenotype based on their changes in metabolic energy expenditure in response to fasting and overfeeding. They then looked at how those phenotypes affected weight loss during a 6 week period of caloric restriction. Does genetics cause obesity or help determine weight?  Here’s what they found:

  • All of the subjects lost weight, but the amount of weight loss ranged from 5% to 12% of the original body weight.
  • Their starting weight did not influence their rate of weight loss during caloric restriction, but their metabolic response to fasting and overfeeding significantly affected their rate of weight loss. Specifically:
  • The subjects with the smallest decrease in energy expenditure during fasting and the largest increase in energy expenditure during overfeeding (the spendthrifts) lost significantly more weight during the 6 week caloric restriction period (what most of us call a diet).
  • The subjects with the largest decrease in energy expenditure during fasting and the smallest increase in energy expenditure during overfeeding (the thrifty) lost significantly less weight during the 6 week caloric restriction period.
  • If you struggle to lose weight, this is a good news – bad news study.
  • The bad news is that life isn’t fair. You probably already suspected that. Your skinny friends actually do have a much easier time losing weight than you do.
  • The good news is that weight loss is possible – even for you. Everyone in the study lost weight – even those subjects with the thriftiest phenotype. So the question becomes what can you do to lose weight successfully? I’ve given you 5 simple tips in the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

Posted November 6, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Microbiome Mysteries

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

is our microbiome affected by exerciseIn a recent post,  What is Your Microbiome and Why is it Important,  of “Health Tips From The Professor” I outlined how our microbiome, especially the bacteria that reside in our intestine, influences our health. That influence can be either good or bad depending on which species of bacteria populate our gut. I also discussed how the species of bacteria that populate our gut are influenced by what we eat and, in turn, influence how the foods we eat are metabolized.

I shared that there is an association between obesity and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. At present, this is a “chicken and egg” conundrum. We don’t know whether obesity influences the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut, or whether certain species of gut bacteria cause us to become obese.

Previous studies have shown that there is also an association between exercise and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut. In particular, exercise is associated with an increase in bacteria that metabolize fiber in our diets to short chain fatty acids such as butyrate. That is potentially important because butyrate is a primary food source for intestinal mucosal cells (the cells that line the intestine). Butyrate helps those cells maintain the integrity of the gut barrier (which helps prevent things like leaky gut syndrome). It also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the immune cells that reside in the gut.

However, associations don’t prove cause and effect. We don’t know whether the differences in gut bacteria were caused by differences in diet or leanness in populations who exercised regularly and those who did not. This is what the present study (JM Allen et al, Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, 50: 747-757, 2018 ) was designed to clarify.  Is our microbiome affected by exercise?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

is our microbiome affected by exercise studyThis study was performed at the University of Illinois. Thirty-two previously sedentary subjects (average age = 28) were recruited for the study. Twenty of them were women and 12 were men. Prior to starting the study, the participants filled out a 7-day dietary record. They were asked to follow the same diet throughout the 12-week study. In addition, a dietitian designed a 3-day food menu based on their 7-day recall for the participants to follow prior to each fecal collection to determine species of gut bacteria.

The study included a two-week baseline when their baseline gut bacteria population was measured, and participants were tested for fitness. This was followed by a 6-week exercise intervention consisting of three supervised 30 to 60-minute moderate to vigorous exercise sessions per week. The exercise was adapted to the participant’s initial fitness level, and both the intensity and duration of exercise increased over the 6-week exercise intervention. Following the exercise intervention, all participants were instructed to maintain their diet and refrain from exercise for another 6 weeks. This was referred to as the “washout period.”

VO2max (a measure of fitness) was determined at baseline and at the end of the exercise intervention. Stool samples for determination of gut bacteria and concentrations of short-chain fatty acids were taken at baseline, at the end of the exercise intervention, and again after the washout period.

In short, this study divided participants into lean and obese categories and held diet constant. The only variable was the exercise component.

 

Is Our Microbiome Affected By Exercise?

is our microbiome affected by exercise fitnessThe results of the study were as follows:

  • Fitness, as assessed by VO2max, increased for all the participants, and the increase in fitness was comparable for both lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise induced a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise increased fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids in the lean subjects, but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were largely reversed once exercise training ceased.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent of diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.” [Note: To be clear, the exercise-induced changes in both gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production were independent of diet and contingent on the sustainment of exercise. However, only the production of short-chain fatty acids was dependent on obesity status.]

 

What Does This Study Mean For You?

is our microbiome affected by exercise gut bacteriaThere are two important take home lessons from this study.

  • With respect to our gut bacteria, I have consistently told you that microbiome research is an emerging science. This is a small study, so you should regard it as the beginning of our understanding of the effect of exercise on our microbiome rather than conclusive by itself. It is consistent with previous studies showing an association between exercise and a potentially beneficial shift in the population of gut bacteria.

The strength of the study is that it shows that exercise-induced changes in beneficial gut bacteria are probably independent of diet. However, it is the first study to look at the interaction between obesity, exercise and gut bacteria, so I would interpret those results with caution until they have been replicated in subsequent studies.

  • With respect to exercise, this may be yet another reason to add regular physical activity to your healthy lifestyle program. We already know that exercise is important for cardiovascular health. We also know that exercise increases lean muscle mass which increases metabolic rate and helps prevent obesity. There is also excellent evidence that exercise improves mood and helps prevent cognitive decline as we age.

Exercise is also associated with decreased risk of colon cancer and irritable bowel disease. This effect of exercise has not received much attention because the mechanism of this effect is unclear. This study shows that exercise increases the fecal concentrations of butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids. Perhaps, this provides the mechanism for the interaction between exercise and intestinal health.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study has reported that:

  • Exercise induces a change in the population of gut bacteria, and the change was comparable in lean and obese subjects.
  • Exercise causes an increase in the number of gut bacteria that produce butyrate and other short-chain fatty acids that are beneficial for gut health.
  • These effects are independent of diet, but do not appear to be independent of obesity because they were seen in lean subjects but not in obese subjects.
  • The exercise-induced changes in gut bacteria and short-chain fatty acid production are largely reversed once exercise training ceases.

The authors concluded: “These findings suggest that exercise training induces compositional and functional changes in the human gut microbiota that are dependent on obesity status, independent on diet, and contingent on the sustainment of exercise.”

For more details and my interpretation of the data, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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