Programmed to be Fat

8/10/2008 PHILADELPHIA, Penn. Sixty-six percent of adults in the United States are overweight … as are 17 percent of our kids. What can we do? Is being fat in our genes?

Some people say they just can't lose weight! Right now, 60 million adults in the United States are obese. Experts at Johns Hopkins predict three out of four adults in the United States will either be overweight or obese by year 2015 -- that's just seven years away! Is being fat in our genes? Jeannette Standard believes she's proof it is.

"I always figured I got it from my parents 'cause Daddy was overweight, Mamma was heavier than what she should have been," Standard told Ivanhoe.

Standard's battle began early. She weighed 150 pounds in 5th grade ... 180 when she started high school … 250 by the time she got married. At 30, that number doubled. Then it doubled again. Her heaviest -- 1,200 pounds!

"I had no control over it," Standard said.

Just staying alive became a struggle. Instead of using a foot stool for her feet … she used it to prop up her fat.

"I have a foot stool," Standard said. "And when I would sit in my chair, I would lift that up and rest it on that stool."

Are some people, like Standard, wired to eat?

"I ate one meal a day from the time I got up to the time I went to bed," she said.

Could whether we're fat or thin be determined by something more than a love for food?

"It actually may start at conception," Melinda Sothern, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La., told Ivanhoe.

Dr. Sothern says our genes may predetermine the future weight of our children -- and the first few years of a child's life are critical.

"They are born with a certain number of genes they inherit and then during their development, they have genes that will either turn on or turn off depending upon their environment and depending upon what behaviors they are allowed to participate in," Dr. Sothern said.

Proving our parents, their eating habits and their exercise habits affect us for life. But is there more our parents are passing down to us? Researchers have just found a gene that may influence obesity.

"If you do have the FTO gene, it does put you at risk for becoming obese and having type 2 diabetes and extra body fat," Emily Rubin, R.D., a weight loss dietitian at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital Digestive Disease Institute in Philadelphia, Penn., told Ivanhoe.

People who have two copies of FTO gene variation have nearly seven pounds of extra body weight. Knowing more about FTO may help doctors predict who will be obese.

"We can access the risk of each person to gain weight and how difficult for them to lose weight," Alessandro Doria, M.D., Ph.D., from the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, Mass., told Ivanhoe.

But that's just the beginning of the genetics of obesity. Researchers from the University of Florida found at least 11 genetic mutations that cause the MC4 receptor to malfunction. That receptor controls the appetite suppressing hormone, leptin. And even more research reveals some obese people have impaired dopamine reception that makes them feel they have to eat more to be satisfied.

Kevin Keyes knows that feeling. At 13, he's already labeled obese and he wants to change that.

"My target would be at least 50," Keyes told Ivanhoe.

He's enrolled in an exercise and nutrition program.

"Since heart disease runs in my family, I need to reduce the risk of it," Keyes said.

He knows that time is running out to change his destiny.

"We don't know exactly when obesity becomes irreversible. What we know is that when children become overweight before the age of 6, that it's their parents' weight that is probably the biggest predictor of them staying overweight," Dr. Sothern said.

Standard worries she's passed her weight problem to her children. Her daughter weighs 500 pounds. Her nine-year-old grandson -- 105 pounds. She just hopes they'll learn how to reverse the trend before it's too late.

"Food addiction is one of the hardest addictions there is to control," Standard said. "We can live without gambling, we can live without drinking alcohol, but you can't live without eating."

But with sheer willpower, limiting her calories to 1,200 a day and exercise, Standard has lost more than 800 pounds. She now weights 390.

"I can put my feet on my foot stool!" Standard said.

A small feat -- as ordinary as walking or working out -- that thousands of morbidly obese people like Standard hope to be able to do one day.

Losing weight is a life long battle. Only one-third of morbidly obese people are able to keep the weight off for more than year. Exercise is key at any age. In fact, studies show how much physical activity children are exposed to in the first three years of life has a lot to do with whether or not they become overweight children and obese adults.

Leslie Capo
LSU Health Sciences Center
(504) 568-4809

Thomas Jefferson University Hospital
(800) 533-3669


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