Genes influence every aspect of human development, physiology, and adaptation, and research shows that genetics also play a role in obesity. However, we still know relatively little when it comes to which specific genes contribute to obesity. Nor do we know the importance of the complex interplay between our genetic makeup and our life experiences.
What we do know is that genes do not always predict one’s future health. Genes and behavior probably are both needed for a person to be overweight. In some cases, various genes may increase one’s susceptibility for obesity and require outside factors such as plentiful food supply or not enough physical activity.
It’s well established that overweight and the different forms of obesity are conditions tending to center within a family. A person with a family history has a two to eight times higher risk than a person with no family history of obesity, and even higher risk is observed in cases of severe obesity.
The most common forms of obesity are probably the result of variations within a large number of genes. Sequence variations within a pool of 56 different genes have been reported as being related to obesity; however, only ten of those genes showed positive results in at least five different studies.
Any attempt to explain the obesity epidemic has to consider both genetics and how (the environment) one lives as well. One explanation that is often cited is that the same genes that helped our ancestors survive occasional famines are now being challenged by environments in which food is plentiful year-round.
As of now, genetic tests are not useful for directing personal diet or physical activity regimens. Studies on genetic variation affecting response to changes in diet and physical activity are still at an early stage. It stands to reason that doing a better job of explaining obesity in terms of genes and environmental factors could help encourage people who are trying to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
Obesity is a serious public health problem because it is associated with some of the leading causes of death in the U.S. and worldwide, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer, but unfortunately, families can’t change their genes. They can, however, change the family environment to encourage healthier eating habits and more physical activity. Those changes can improve the health of family members and the family health history of the next generation.
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