Is there anyone who doesn’t worry about their weight? Most of us dither about that nagging 5 pounds that comes and goes, but some people are prone to packing on the pounds, which jeopardizes their health. Once your BMI hits 30, you qualify as obese, a condition described as a “ticking time bomb” for chronic disease.
It’s easy to say people should get their weight under control but that can be a challenge. An extensive body of research known as The Developmental Origins of Health and Disease shows that many people are programmed for obesity even before they are born.
A key focus is the impact of poor nutrition on a developing fetus. When a pregnant woman is malnourished, it compromises her baby’s development. One glitch may be malfunctions in body systems that regulate energy balance, which calibrate a baby for obesity later in life.
Some of the most compelling research originated in a period of the second world war known as the Dutch Hunger Winter. The Germans cut off food supplies to northern Holland and the people starved. One study found that offspring of the pregnant women were more likely to have “an unfavorable metabolic profile” as adults, including a relatively high BMI.
These findings bring the science of epigenetics into play. While obesity has some genetic links, genes themselves are not to blame. Genes are not static. They react to their environment, which changes how they are expressed.
In the study mentioned above, malnutrition was shown to impact an epigenetic process known as DNA methylation. The famine sparked changes in genes expression that set the stage for obesity and other types of chronic illness later in life.
Famine is an extreme circumstance but malnutrition is not — even in prosperous countries. Three generations of Americans have been raised on the so-called Standard American Diet which is loaded with nutrient-deficient, processed food. As a result, many Americans, including pregnant women, suffer from a condition known as “high calorie malnutrition,” which paved the way for the “obesity epidemic” we’re seeing today.
Obesity is a serious condition that requires professional advice. But you can take steps to improve gene expression, which may help you with managing your weight.
Focus on fighting inflammation. Inflammation is a major driver of obesity and other chronic conditions. A healthy diet and regular exercise are powerful anti-inflammatories and both have been shown to work their magic by improving gene expression. The Mediterranean Diet which is high in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, has been well studied in this regard. On the other hand, a diet high in processed foods has been shown to be highly inflammatory.
Eat More Fiber. You’ve probably heard that fiber keeps you thin because it fills you up. But fiber also helps you to maintain a healthy weight by supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria in your gut. Among their benefits, good bacteria produce substances that battle inflammation and communicate with cells throughout your body that support positive gene expression.
Obese people have fewer types of bacteria in their guts compared to leaner individuals who have richer, more diverse microbiomes. People who are obese also have a higher ratio of bacteria associated with inefficient energy use, which predisposes the body to store excess calories as fat. Emerging research suggests that fine tuning gut microbes might be an effective weight loss tool.
Kick Your Sweet Tooth. The fructose found in whole foods like fruit provides a healthy source of energy, but the opposite is true when fructose is selectively enriched in processed foods like sugar-sweetened beverages. There it alters the expression of genes in ways that affect how your liver metabolizes fats, ultimately encouraging obesity. Worse still, research has also shown that high-fructose corn syrup (the sweetener of choice in most soft drinks) stimulates your appetite, encouraging you to consume more to feel satisfied.
Avoid Certain Toxins. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) turn up in in many products from pharmaceutical drugs, to household cleaners and plastic water bottles. EDC’s have been identified as “obesogens,” chemicals that make you fat. In general terms, EDCs collect in fat where they negatively affect epigenetic mechanisms throughout the body. These changes disrupt metabolism, promoting inflammation and obesity. You can minimize your exposure to these chemicals by avoiding plastic containers and chemical-free household and personal care products.
Managing your weight involves more than counting calories. Maintaining a healthy weight includes a systemic approach to improving your health, supporting positive gene expression and efficient energy use.
Judith Finlayson is the author of You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics, and the Origins of Chronic Disease. Visit her at www.judithfinlayson.com.
Tobi, Elmar W. et a. DNA Methylation Signatures Link Prenatal Famine Exposure to Growth and Metabolism. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms6592
Montserrat, F. Nutritional Genomics and the Mediterranean Diet’s Effects on Human Cardiovascular Health. doi: 10.3390/nu8040218