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?