Fat Genes

Avoiding obesity is difficult when it's in your DNA

By Robert Beauchamps

Childhood obesity. You know it’s bad when the World Health Organization (WHO) declares it an epidemic. It’s a shame that their “Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health” never got off the ground. The only thing that’s changed in the decade since the strategy’s implementation is that the situation has worsened.

According to the Childhood Obesity Foundation (COF), over 40 million children are overweight or obese worldwide. If things don’t change, that number could reach 70 million by 2025. What’s at stake? The life expectancy and overall health of future generations, not to mention the burden on our health-care system, which at last count cost Canadians nearly $6 billion.

Most troubling is how some studies show that the majority of adolescents do not outgrow this problem. In fact, many continue to gain excess weight throughout their teens. “I tried every diet ever invented,” says Mitchell Friedman, a 21-year-old student looking back on adolescence. “I was the quintessential fat kid. The more I was teased, the more I withdrew, never moving a muscle, which never helped my cause.”

Young Mr. Friedman says it took the passing of his favourite uncle to shock him into changing his ways. “My uncle was only 58 when he died from heart failure. He also battled the bulge throughout his life. His death broke my heart, but on the positive side, it was the wake-up call I needed. I think he’d be proud to see the progress I’ve made.” Refusing to be just another statistic, Mr. Friedman used his sadness as fuel. It took a year, but he slowly saw the positive results pile up as he shed weight and kept to his new routine.

Dr. Arya M. Sharma, in an interview with the Canadian Obesity Network, says people like Mr. Friedman are the exception to the rule. She argues that genetics plays a bigger role in obesity than many of us would like to admit. “It’s not that lean kids [aren’t sedentary], it’s just that kids who are genetically predisposed to obesity are far more likely to pack on the pounds when spending hours in front of the TV than kids who are genetically less obesity prone. From a prevention and treatment perspective, this means that overweight and obese kids will have to work much harder at changing their lifestyles.”

As a society, we often blame obesity on unhealthy lifestyles, willpower, and sloth. The truth is thin people might just turn out to be genetically more fortunate. So how do you stop grumbling under your breath every time you see your “skinny friend” eating corn chips by the handful while you count every leaf of lettuce, every sliver of almond?

“This should be seen as a good reason to fully appreciate and empathize with kids who carry extra weight,” says Dr. Sharma. “Some will need to work very hard at controlling their weight, while others seem to have won the luck of the draw when it comes to genetics.”


Summer 2018, Vol 10 N°3

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