How Much of Weight Gain is Genetic?

21 minutes to read
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“When you see how you’re wired, you can make educated and strategic decisions to position yourself into a place to succeed. That’s why I love genetic testing.” ~ Dr. Ben Lynch

Introduction

As the New Year begins and many of us are hoping for a fresh start or to undo any potential damage from a holiday season ripe with indulgences, we are often at a loss for where to start.

We believe that if we only “ate less and exercised more” or “had the motivation and better discipline”, we would finally attain our long-held weight loss goals.

In this article, I’ll attempt to dispel a few myths about weight gain.

These will include the notion that our genes are not our destiny, some of the main genetic factors that can contribute to weight gain, as well as going over some of the environmental factors, and what you can do about it all to achieve your weight management goals.

Myths Around Weight Gain

When it comes to genetics and weight gain, being armed with the proper knowledge and mindset is critical.

Regarding mindset, dispelling myths that lead to destructive beliefs and results can also be essential.

Below are the top two myths that often stand in the way of people reaching their weight goals.

Myth #1: “My weight gain is genetic.”

Although our genes play a part in determining our predispositions to certain body types, our hormonal makeup, and our metabolism, individuals with any genetic makeup can obtain their optimal weight in the right environment.

Later in this article, we’ll go over some of the genes associated with weight gain and the environmental factors involved, so you’ll have the basic knowledge to empower yourself in reaching your desired weight.

Myth #2: “My weight gain is due to a character flaw – I lack willpower.”

So many individuals are caught in an endless cycle of self-blame and then often emotionally eating with less-than-ideal foods when they’ve previously tried to deprive themselves of them.

Well, it turns out that it’s much less about our willpower and more about our physiology and environment when it comes to whether we will reach for that extra donut.

Before blaming yourself for indulging in extra treats over the holidays, consider that foods containing processed wheat, added sugar, or fried ingredients are addictive and that our mammalian brain will inevitably lead us to crave those foods when available.

Evolutionarily speaking, they are a source of quick energy and one that, in the current context, can lead to overconsumption → insulin resistance, and, subsequently, chronic disease down the line.

When we consume these highly palatable foods, we often overeat at the moment (and additives may have something to do with this – more on that later).

When this occurs, a spike in blood sugar will lead to a crash later, leading to cravings and more overconsumption of empty calories.

This is the vicious cycle so many are caught in, and one that conveniently funds the agriculture, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries concurrently.

The Gene-Environment Interaction

When it comes to weight gain, both genetics and environment play a role.

Some individuals might have optimal genetic factors going for them when it comes to weight management and still be overweight.

In contrast, others may have many genetic factors working against them and be at their optimal weight.

When it comes to genes and the environment, as Dr. Francis Collins said, “Genetics loads the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.”

Although our genes will play a part in whether we’re more prone to weight gain than others, it bears repeating that individuals with any genetic profile can achieve their optimal weight with the right lifestyle factors (see below).

What are the Genetic Factors Leading to Weight Gain?

The main genetic factors contributing to weight gain can be broken into three categories: diet and metabolism genes, hormone profile genes, and mental health/executive function genes.

Diet and Metabolism Genes

MC4R: Famously known as the ‘Snacking Gene,’ this one has been associated with dysregulated hunger signals and an increased propensity to ‘grazing’ behavior.

FTO: This gene corresponds with the feeling of satiety or fullness that we experience. Those with suboptimal variations have a delayed signal from the stomach to the brain, indicating that they’re full.

APOA2: This gene affects our saturated fat metabolism. Individuals with suboptimal variants are more prone to weight gain with high saturated fat diets (i.e., keto may not be optimal for everyone).

TCF7L2: This one affects our predisposition to Diabetes and insulin resistance, with individuals with suboptimal variations being better off on a low-sugar, low-glycemic diet (such as paleo or Mediterranean, for example).

UCP1: This one relates to what people commonly call our ‘metabolism’ and affects our thermoregulation (ability to regulate body temperature). Those with a suboptimal variation here may want to stop eating at least 3 hours before bed and practice time-restricted eating.

Hormone Genes

Many genes play a part in your overall hormone profile, and it’s about balance with hormones.

For both males and females, if you have the genes to convert more quickly to estrogen than the average person of your sex, you would be considered estrogen dominant and be more prone to put on adipose tissue and likely get slower results at the gym.

On the other side, if you have the genes to be androgen dominant (again, this would be for both men and women) for your sex, particularly with higher DHT (sometimes referred to as ‘testosterone on steroids), you would be more prone to a leaner physique and having an easier time putting on lean muscle mass.

Mental/Executive Function Genes

Having the suboptimal ADRA2B (increased fear response), 5HTTLPR (lower serotonin transport), or either slow or fast COMT (gene which encodes for an enzyme that metabolizes different neurotransmitters) can all play a part – particularly when coupled with particular diet and metabolism genes, in promoting weight gain.

Essentially, some of these genes can contribute to ‘stress eating’ or promote addictive or binging behavior.

What are the Environmental Causes of Weight Gain?

When it comes to the factors affecting weight gain, focusing on our environment vs. our genes generally produces the best outcomes in that we shift the focus from what we can’t do to what we can control (which is, fortunately, a lot, in this case!).

Below are some of the leading environmental factors that can contribute to weight gain:

  1. Suboptimal sleep – causes cravings for high carbohydrate, high glycemic foods.
  2. Eating too late - interferes with quality sleep, a time when the metabolism works on losing weight.
  3. Alcohol consumption - contains all kinds of hidden sugars and can cause excessive food intake and cravings for the wrong types of food.
  4. A sedentary lifestyle - this one speaks for itself – you may have excess calories that are not utilized.
  5. Stress – unmanaged stress elevates cortisol, which can lead to abdominal fat and increased cravings for high glycemic foods.
  6. Western diet – consists of many starchy, processed foods, which contribute to added weight.
  7. Poor food quality - additives in highly palatable foods can interfere with hunger signals and create blood sugar dysregulation, leading to overeating and cravings.
  8. Hormone imbalances – deficiencies in androgens like testosterone or excess estrogens can lead to weight loss issues and a decreased ability to gain muscle mass.
  9. Emotion-driven eating – unmanaged stress, mental health challenges, or trauma can lead to using food to self-regulate.

Calories vs. Nutrition

When it comes to processed foods, they have often been created by food scientists with palatability in mind to improve their taste and get a customer to consume more.

Instead of focusing on calories in and out, the quality of our food choices will likely impact our weight loss goals significantly.

With the understanding that willpower is finite and can only go so far, coupled with the notion that certain foods are designed to be addictive, we can better arm ourselves with the tools to make better choices.

In terms of the ‘what’ of how we eat, a basic principle so many find helpful is simply not having easy access to processed foods in the house.

Once we accept our physiology, we’re less likely to feel guilty when we give in to eating those in the pantry, for example.

When we don’t have those cookies available, we’re much less likely to take a trip to the store to obtain them. As our effort-minimizing brain is less likely to take that initiative, we may think twice before indulging.

When we have only good food choices readily available, we’re much less likely to overdo calories and much less likely to get into a spiral of blood sugar spikes and dips, leading to cravings and empty overeating calories.

Top Things to Consider For A Waist-Friendly Diet

Although the ideal diet is mainly individual and, to some extent, genetic, some principles apply most of the time:

Speak with a clinician to hone in on what the ideal diet is for you.

The right certified functional nutritionist, health coach, functional Naturopathic Doctor, or MD could guide you on food sensitivity testing, labs, and genetics, honing in on the ideal diet for you.

Heredity is Not Destiny

Regarding weight management, so many of us still need the education and tools to make informed choices regarding food and lifestyle.

Many have had to learn the hard way before obtaining helpful information and resources regarding our weight.

Our environment and food choices, as well as our overall health status, can play a significant role in us attaining our weight goals.

Our weight issues can stem from a variety of other health conditions and may be related to our hormone health, thyroid health, and metabolic or mental health conditions.

A functional medicine practitioner who takes the time to review all significant contributing factors in each system, along with our genetics, will be able to assess where our weight management issue may stem from if we’re at a loss ourselves.

Once we know the weak link, we’re in a better position to address those systems and make practical adjustments that lead to weight loss at any age.

The licensed physicians at Tiger Medical Institute are trained in the root-cause assessment of health conditions, including obesity. They can examine the genetic and lifestyle factors that play into trouble with weight management.

Tiger Medical Institute uses genetic and biomarker testing to determine your risks and the elements in difficulty losing weight.

To learn more, you may review these additional articles on Weight Management:

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Dr. Adilia Kreps

Dr. Adilia Kreps

Naturopathic Physician

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