On Childhood Obesity and Genetics – It’s All in The Family!

Today at noon First Lady Michelle Obama unveils a new Nationwide Initiative on Childhood Obesity. About 1/3 of our children are overweight, 1 in 5 are obese. In some states, the numbers are nearing 50%. These numbers go up as people age. Currently 60% of adults in our nation are overweight and 30% are obese.

Clearly this is a progressive condition. It’s getting worse. We’re getting worse. More people are getting fatter and sicker as they get older. The prevalence of obesity has risen 3000% in the last couple of generations. That is NOT an explosion of genetic illness.

It is convenient and absolving of responsibility to think that our DNA is causing obesity. While there are genetic obesity syndromes, they are rare – estimated at 1 in 7000 obese people. These syndromes present very early in childhood and are often accompanied by other developmental conditions. That means that 6999 out of every 7000 obese persons have to find another reason for their overweight besides their genes!

The genetics of obesity is how your body distributes fat, and what shape you are. Apple vs pear is genetic. Gaining weight as a result of eating too much is not.

Still, for those of you who insist on genetics as a cause of your obesity, you’re right. Sort of.

Most of the genetics of obesity involves on-off switches that regulate metabolism, inflammation, energy. Low quality foods, nutritional deficiencies, artificial additives and preservatives can flip the gain-weight or the do-not-lose or even the burn-calories-slower switch. If you are obese and dieting, it may not be your imagination that you are not eating much and still not losing weight.

Obesity IS generational and familial and cultural. We become overweight because we are served certain foods in an environment that encourages us to eat. It might be low quality food, or it might be the highest calorie home cooking of our dreams. We overeat because we attach meaning and emotion to our food, whether it’s the SuperBowl, Christmas or a funeral. Quickly we learn to use food to regulate our emotions, our energy, our happiness on a daily basis.

What about exercise? You need it! Your body is designed to move, and without movement, you become ill. It gets better though. When you combine healthier foods with movement, those on/off gene switches go back to where they are supposed to be, and your body weight begins to readjust. It doesn’t take starvation and boot camp and pain. It may just take a few less preservatives, a little more home cooking, and a walk after dinner. And a good nights sleep.

So what do you do for you and your children and your family? Here’s the good news.

If you come from a family that has always used food as a measure of the joy and sadness of life, try music instead. Use food for fuel, not emotional fullfillment. Use love as comfort, not ice cream. Use movement to blow off steam, not potato chips. Use prayer and meditation to find your bliss, not cookies. Use your family as your support, not your frustration. In the end, all we have is each other. With or without the meal.

Now you can live with that, can’t you?

Comments

3 Responses to “On Childhood Obesity and Genetics – It’s All in The Family!”
  1. Tina says:

    My biggest frustration about this whole exposure on childhood obesity is the discrediting of the genetic factor. Although (supposedly) only a small percentage of overweight kids are “big-boned” or have dense muscle mass that impacts their weight, every kid matters and every body is different. My daughter’s father is so wrapped in my 5 year-old’s weight that the poor girl is almost too afraid to eat. Both her dad and I were heavy kids back in the 80s, when we were both the only fat kids in class. I was an early bloomer and almost full-grown at 5’5″ by 11 years old (I ended up at 5’9″ at 14.). Anyway, as teens her dad got into sports and became a muscular and thick football player, and I decided that I was tired of being overweight and over a summer lost 30 pounds by changing my diet and adding exercise into my daily routine. Except when I was pregnant, I have stayed in the 145-150-pound range for the past 24 years since I decided to lose weight as a teen. (I have very dense muscles and most people guess my weight at least 10 pounds lighter than I am, but I have a fat percentage around 21-22%.) I provide a good example of eating in moderation and the necessity of regular moderate-to-vigorous exercise 3X per wk for my daughter. I keep her active with structured activiites (ballet, swimming, and gymnastics) as well as make sure she gets lots of play time outside with her friends, I keep her tv watching to a minimum, monitor her calories, and I help her make better food choices when she is hungry (fruits, veggies, protein, and fiber). But with all of that she is still considered overweight/obese according to the BMI calculator; she is 49″ tall/65pounds at 5 years 10 months. She looks like the average 7 year-old. Her worst enemies are her peers who are all skinny, but eat tons of junk and candy (which we don’t keep in the house). I have had to start making Gabrielle eat before going to play and always tell the other mothers to let Gabrielle have a little of the treats so she doesn’t feel left out, but to make sure she eats keeps the portion no larger than the serving size (which I also discuss with Gabrielle daily). What is disheartening, though, is that because the focus in the news and everywhere is about how genetics isn’t an important factor in childhood obesity, there is nothing out there to comfort me that there are kids with naturally heavier/muscular bodies that will become leaner when they go through puberty (assuming they eat in moderation and workout moderately-vigorously a few times a week). There is nothing to comfort her father to tell him that some kids (especially girls) do mature earlier, which will cause them to be taller and heavier than their peers (especially boys), but that will level-off as the other kids catch-up around 14-15 years old. (Those are my personal real-life experiences and suspect will be Gabrielle’s experiences, too.) Regardless, as a mother who was a fat kid, having a heavy child was the last thing I wanted. I have always been conscientious about her diet and activity levels. What I observe amongst other kids about her age is that some kids are just skinny and others are just big and it has a little to do with what and how much they eat, which is contrary to what the experts all say. (That is with the exception of very obese parents and their very chubby children, which is most definitely an environmental/over-eating and under-exercising issue.) Perhaps the obesity epidemic and finding solutions to obesity really need to focus on the tweens and teens, which is when it seems to me their weight really is more affected by environment, diet, and exercise as opposed to most 4-8 year olds, whose weight seems to be more affected by genetics.

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