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Is There a “Skinny” Gene?
Evidence That Being Thin May Be Hereditary
Most of us have one or two people in our circle of acquaintances that seem to be able to eat whatever they want without gaining the slightest bit of weight. For the millions of people who spend their lives combating obesity and watching every mouthful of food they eat, this hardly seems fair. But just as certain individuals are genetically predisposed to pack on the pounds, there is evidence which suggests that being skinny is an inherited trait.
The Adipose Gene
Over the last several years, scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center have been studying a gene that appears to control whether or not animals of all types – from earthworms to humans – tend to accumulate fat in their bodies. The so-called adipose gene, which was discovered over 50 years ago by a Yale grad student who was conducting research on fruit flies,(1) appears to function as a master switch which instructs the body whether to use or store fat. Individuals who are more slender appear to have a higher rate of adipose activity, whereas those who have a tendency to put on weight have less active adipose genes.
Researchers at UT Southwestern who conducted studies on laboratory mice found that they could manipulate the adipose gene to increase or decrease its activity.(2) Mice whose adipose activity levels had been increased ate as much or more than normal animals, yet they had a lower percentage of stored body fat, were more resistant to diabetes, and were better able to regulate their metabolism.
Mice that had experimentally decreased adipose gene activity tended to be fatter and less active than normal mice, and they were predisposed to diabetes.
According to the study, the adipose gene appears to function as a sort of volume-control switch; variations on the gene seem to predetermine whether an individual is likely to have a slight, medium, or heavy build.
As an evolutionary mechanism, the presence of the adipose gene makes sense; having individuals of a species with variations of the gene means that there is a greater likelihood of the species surviving a variety of conditions.
For example, during times of famine, when food is scarce, the individuals who are better at hoarding fat are more likely to survive and reproduce, while more streamlined individuals have a better chance at escaping predators.
What This Means for Us
Unfortunately, in our super-size society of all feast and no famine, storing excessive fat can lead to a wide range of health problems; obesity, heart disease, and type II diabetes, and other fat-related diseases have reached epidemic proportions in the Western world. The good news is that with further research, it may be possible to develop a treatment which would allow doctors to essentially “turn up” the fat-burning ability of obese patients. By studying the effects of the adipose gene on individuals of different body types, scientists may be on their way to discovering an effective method for controlling body weight.
A word of caution:
Before you pack in your diet and exercise program, keep in mind that our understanding of the adipose gene is still in its early stages. Medical research is a long way from developing a weight-loss pill that can eliminate your genetic predisposition to obesity and make you magically slender.
Also remember that a predisposition to storing fat does not mean you are doomed to be overweight for your entire life. It still holds true that obesity is ultimately caused by consuming more calories than you burn. Don’t give up – stick to your healthy nutrition plan, keep up the physical activity, and work with a doctor, nutritionist, or fitness expert who can help you find an effective weight loss program that will work for you.
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