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.

Trackback from your site.

Leave a comment

Recent Videos From Dr. Steve Chaney

READ THE ARTICLE
READ THE ARTICLE

Latest Article

What Is The Planetary Diet?

Posted May 21, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Earth Day has come and gone, but you are still committed to saving the planet. You save energy. You recycle. You drive an electric car. But is your diet destroying the planet?

This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) serves as a dire warning of what will happen if we don’t change our ways. I touched on this report briefly in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor,” What Is The Flexitarian Diet , but this topic is important enough that it deserves an issue all its own.

The commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.” It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

How Was The Study Done?

The study (W. Willet et al, The Lancet, 393, issue 10170, 447-492, 2019 ) was the report of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems. This Commission convened 30 of the top experts from across the globe to prepare a science-based evaluation of the effect of diet on both health and sustainable food production through the year 2050. The Commission included world class experts on healthy diets, agricultural methods, climate change, and earth sciences. The Commission reviewed 356 published studies in preparing their report.

 

Is Your Diet Destroying The Planet?

When they looked at the effect of food production on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • “Strong evidence indicates that food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change.” Specifically, the commission reported:
  • Agriculture occupies 40% of global land (58% of that is for pasture use).
  • Food production is responsible for 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use.
  • Conversion of natural ecosystems to croplands and pastures is the largest factor causing species to be threatened with extinction. Specifically, 80% of extinction threats to mammals and bird species are due to agricultural practices.
  • Overuse and misuse of nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers causes eutrophication. In case you are wondering, eutrophication is defined as the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients (such as phosphates from commercial fertilizer) that stimulate the growth of algae and other aquatic plant life, usually resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen. This creates dead zones in lakes and coastal regions where fish and other marine organisms cannot survive.
  • About 60% of world fish stocks are fully fished and more than 30% are overfished. Because of this, catch by global marine fisheries has been declining since 1996.
  • “Reaching the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming…is not possible by only decarbonizing the global energy systems. Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is essential to achieving the Paris Agreement.”
  • The world’s population is expected to increase to 10 billion by 2050. The current system of food production is unsustainable.

When they looked at the effect of the foods we eat on the environment, the Commission concluded:

  • Beef and lamb are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and land use.
  • The concern about land use is obvious because of the large amount of pasture land required to raise cattle and sheep.
  • The concern about greenhouse gas emissions is because cattle and sheep are ruminants. They not only breathe out CO2, but they also release methane into the atmosphere from fermentation in their rumens of the food they eat. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and it persists in the atmosphere 25 times longer than CO2. The single most important thing we can do as individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to eat less beef and lamb. [Note: grass fed cattle produce more greenhouse gas emissions than cattle raised on corn because they require 3 years to bring to market rather than 2 years.]
  • In terms of energy use beef, lamb, pork, chicken, dairy and eggs all require much more energy to produce than any of the plant foods.
  • In terms of eutrophication, beef, lamb, and pork, all cause much more eutrophication than any plant food. Dairy and eggs cause more eutrophication than any plant food except fruits.
  • In contrast, plant crops reduce greenhouse gas emissions by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

 

What Is The Planetary Diet?

In the words of the Commission: “[The Planetary Diet] largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils. It includes a low to moderate amount of seafood, poultry, and eggs. It includes no or a very low amount of red meat, processed meat, sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables.”

When described in that fashion it sounds very much like other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable. Here is a more detailed description of the diet:

  • It starts with a vegetarian diet. Vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, soy foods, and whole grains are the foundation of the diet.
  • It allows the option of adding one serving of dairy a day (It turns out that cows produce much less greenhouse emissions per serving of dairy than per serving of beef. That’s because cows take several years to mature before they can be converted to meat, and they are emitting greenhouse gases the entire time).
  • It allows the option of adding one 3 oz serving of fish or poultry or one egg per day.
  • It allows the option of swapping seafood, poultry, or egg for a 3 oz serving of red meat no more than once a week. If you want a 12 oz steak, that would be no more than once a month.

This is obviously very different from the way most Americans currently eat. According to the Commission:

  • “This would require greater than 50% reduction in consumption of unhealthy foods, such as red meat and sugar, and greater than 100% increase in the consumption of healthy foods, such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.”
  • “In addition to the benefits for the environment, “dietary changes from current diets to healthy diets are likely to substantially benefit human health, averting about 10.8-11.6 million deaths per year globally.”

What Else Did The Commission Recommend?

In addition to changes in our diets, the Commission also recommended several changes in the way food is produced. Here are a few of them.

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the fuel used to transport food to market.
  • Reduce food losses and waste by at least 50%.
  • Make radical improvements in the efficiency of fertilizer and water use. In terms of fertilizer, the change would be two-fold:
    • In developed countries, reduce fertilizer use and put in place systems to capture runoff and recycle the phosphorous.
    • In third world countries, make fertilizer more available so that crop yields can be increased, something the Commission refer to as eliminating the “yield gap” between third world and developed countries.
  • Stop the expansion of new agricultural land use into natural ecosystems and put in place policies aimed at restoring and re-foresting degraded land.
  • Manage the world’s oceans effectively to ensure that fish stocks are used responsibly and global aquaculture (fish farm) production is expanded sustainability.

What we can do: While most of these are government level policies, we can contribute to the first three by reducing personal food waste and purchasing organic produce locally whenever possible.

What Does This Mean For You?

If you are a vegan, you are probably asking why the Commission did not recommend a completely plant-based diet. The answer is that a vegan diet is perfect for the health of our planet. However, the Commission wanted to make a diet that was as consumer-friendly as possible and still meet their goals of a healthy, environmentally friendly, and sustainable diet.

If you are eating a typical American diet or one of the fad diets that encourage meat consumption, you are probably wondering how you can ever make such drastic changes to your diet. The answer is “one step at a time.”  If you have read my books “Slaying The Food Myths” or “Slaying the Supplement Myths,”  you know that my wife and I did not change our diet overnight. Our diet evolved to something very close to the Planetary Diet over a period of years.

The Commission also purposely designed the Planetary Diet so that you “never have to say never” to your favorite foods. Three ounces of red meat a week does not sound like much, but it allows you a juicy steak once a month.

Sometimes you just need to develop a new mindset. As I shared in my books, my father prided himself on grilling the perfect steak. I love steaks, but I decided to set a few parameters. I don’t waste my red meat calories on anything besides filet mignon at a fine restaurant. It must be a special occasion, and someone else must be buying. That limits it to 2-3 times a year. I still get to enjoy good steak, and I stay well within the parameters of the Planetary diet.

Develop your strategy for enjoying some of your favorite foods within the parameters of the Planetary Diet and have fun with it.

The Bottom Line

 

Is your diet destroying the planet? This is not a new question, but a recent commission of international scientists has conducted a comprehensive study into our diet and its effect on our health and our environment. Their report serves as a dire warning of what will happen to us and our planet if we don’t change our ways.

The Commission carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:

  • Are they good for us?
  • Are they good for the planet?
  • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.

The Commission described the typical American diet as a “lose-lose diet.”  It is bad for our health. It is bad for the planet. And it is not sustainable.

In its place they carefully designed their version of a primarily plant-based diet they called a “win-win diet.”  It is good for our health. It is good for the planet. And, it is sustainable.

In their publication they refer to their diet as the “universal healthy reference diet” (What else would you expect from a committee?). However, it has become popularly known as the “Planetary Diet.”

The Planetary Diet is similar to other healthy diets such as semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, DASH, and Flexitarian. However, what truly distinguishes it from the other diets is the restrictions placed on the non-plant portion of the diet to make it both environmentally friendly and sustainable (for details, read the article above).

I have spoken before about the importance of a primarily plant-based diet for our health. In that context it is a personal choice. It is optional.

However, this report is a wake-up call. It puts a primarily plant-based diet in an entirely different context. It is essential for the survival of our planet. It is no longer optional.

If you care about global warming…If you care about saving our planet, there is no other choice.

For more details 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.

 

UA-43257393-1