By Matthias Muenzer, M.D.
Hallmark Health Medical Associates
I’m big boned.
I come from a long line of large women.
My mother has always been heavy, but she’s pretty healthy at age 60.
Every day, one of my OB/GYN patients shares with me the genetic reasons that she’s carrying extra weight. Often, the patient has accepted that she’s “cursed” to be heavy because it runs in her family, and she has decided to be satisfied at an unhealthy weight. You can’t change your family tree, right?
No – but your family tree is not what’s keeping you at an unhealthy weight.
It’s important to understand the difference between genetic traits and lifestyle choices. Before you blame your parents or grandparents for your weight, let’s look back in time to learn the difference and reveal what are genes are really built to do.
Genetic factors vs. lifestyle factors
Certain parts of us are coded into our DNA – your eye color, your height, your bone structure. These are genetic traits that run in your family, can’t be changed and are out of your control.
Lifestyle choices are the opposite. They may be passed down from generation to generation, but as habits rather than concrete traits that cannot be changed. Obesity is the result of lifestyle choices – voluntary action or inaction and food choices, good or bad. In other words, you’re not destined to live with your dad’s pot belly or your mother’s thighs if you make healthy choices.
Humans have evolved over millions of years, constantly adapting to our surroundings. Studies of tribes untouched by Western civilization show that our distant ancestors walked or ran an average of six to 10 miles per day. Exercise to early humans was not a chore – it was a way of life.
Ancient humans lived in the wilderness, without any of the modern advantages we take for granted today. They lived without grocery stores, cars and electricity – they had to do everything with their own muscles and strength. Their lives were constantly hanging in the balance – a man who sat idle for even a few hours was ready prey for an enemy tribe or hungry wild animal. To survive, our ancestors had to be fit and lean.
Our bodies are genetically engineered for physical movement powered by clean-burning fuel. Our ancestors had to hunt animals and gather fruits, vegetables and nuts to survive. There were no processed foods full of salt, sugar and fat – only whole, natural produce and grass-fed animals to eat, and they had to put forth physical effort to do so. It’s hard wired into our DNA to be active and to eat foods that nourish our bodies.
Through the years, our grandparents, parents and our generation have come to enjoy a less physically taxing lifestyle. We have cars and mass transit systems to get us where we need to go – no more walking or running. We don’t have to leave the house to get food. Restaurants deliver meals to our homes with just a phone call – no more hunting and gathering. Entertainment is less about enjoying the great outdoors and more about smartphones and television.
While modern society definitely has its advantages, we’ve chosen to give up the part of the heritage that helped humans become the dominant species on the planet – physical activity and eating natural foods. This stark change in exercise and diet has led to an epidemic of health problems associated with weight. Obesity is linked to serious health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, sitting disease and cancer.
It’s not enough to throw up your hands and say, “My genes caused me to gain weight, and I can’t change my DNA.” That argument is unacceptable. It’s time to go back to your real genetic makeup – the true capabilities of your body – and take control of your weight before it leads to serious health problems.
What you can do
I’m not asking you to move to a hut in the wilderness and live off the land. This is a modern world, and we can enjoy the conveniences while still looking out for our health.
Start with little steps to add more movement and whole foods to your routine:
- Make multiple trips to bring in the groceries or take out the trash
- Take a walk around your block once per day
- Skip purchasing one type of junk food per grocery trip (chips this time, cookies next time)
- Swap out white bread for whole wheat bread
Then graduate to bigger steps:
- Set attainable, healthy goals (laying off the junk food except one small treat on the weekend, exercising 30 minutes per day)
- Drink one gallon of water per day – it’s a metabolism booster and keeps your body hydrated
- Enlist friends or family members to join you for exercise – often it’s more fun to work out with friends, and it can keep you accountable
- Walk or bike to work instead of driving or taking the bus (you may end up getting there faster, depending on traffic!)
Exercise and healthy food makes us feel better because we are genetically designed to be active. Our genes “expect” us to be moving and “crave” clean energy to keep us going. Exercise also will make you stronger and more flexible and will increase your endurance.
Studies from the past 10 years show exercise also can make you smarter and happier. Why? Because physical activity makes our bodies work the way they’re designed to work. It makes every system in our bodies function better and pumps blood to the most remote regions of our bodies.
As you get older, you become more susceptible to weight gain, and it becomes harder and harder to lose pounds. You’re never going to be younger than you are right now, so it’s a great time to start making changes toward a healthier you.
If you want to learn more about getting back to the basics of exercise and eating well, ask me next time you’re in the office, or click here to make an appointment. We all have a few genetic traits we wish we could change – but your weight is something you can control.