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The Role of Genetics in Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity has become a huge problem in the United States in the past few decades; while several factors may contribute to this problem, more and more studies are finding that genetics also play a part.

The “New England Journal of Medicine”, (NEJM) published an article regarding an adoptive study of adoptees and their biological parents. The study involved 540 adult Danish adoptees from a population of 3, 580. The results were that there was a “strong relation between the weight class of the adoptees and the body-mass index of their biologic parents.” The conclusion was that, genetics actually may have a part in determining obesity in adults.

At least 1 in 3 adults in the United States are overweight according to an abstract by: Christopher G. Bell, Andrew J. Walley and Philippe Froguel; it states: “The identification of genes that are involved in monogenic, syndromic and polygenic obesity has greatly increased our knowledge of the mechanisms that underlie this condition.”

“It has been shown that overweight tends to run in families suggesting a genetic link. In some cases, parental obesity is a stronger predictor of childhood overweight than the child’s weight status alone.”

“Body Mass Index (BMI) is a measure of weight adjusted for height used to determine weight categories.” Due to the different growth rates of male and female children, the BMI is age and gender specific and determined using growth charts for each gender. While other factors can contribute, genetics does play a role in the predisposition towards excess body weight and interaction between genes and the other environmental factors can be an added influence.

The human body contains an anti-starvation mechanism that causes humans to store fat. Weight gain occurs when a child eats more than their body may need. Certain types of foods can contain fat, calories, even chemicals that can lead to weight gain; these are some of the environmental factors.

It’s also a fact that excess stress in childhood, can sometimes contribute to binge eating; especially if the parent’s have this tendency or allow a child access to a lot of junk foods. Schools today do bear some responsibility; the loaded carbohydrates and saturated fats in school foods plays a big part in whether kids gain weight or not. Peer pressure can also be another factor; kids can be cruel to one another and anyone who feels left out of the group because they may be overweight, can turn to binging or their favorite foods for comfort.

Research at the, “St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, Columbia University”; estimates that genes can account for 75-80% of body fat in children with the rest being environmental factors, while other studies estimate that only 70% may be responsible.

Even the “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention”, (CDC) states that, “Science shows that genetics plays a role in obesity. Genes can directly cause obesity in disorders such as Bardet-Biedl syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome.”

They also state that both genes and behavior can contribute to childhood obesity; that genetics can increase the susceptibility towards obesity and that other factors such as the amount of food eaten and limited or a lack of exercise contributes, as well.

They further admit that many illnesses and medications can contribute to childhood and adult obesity, as many medications can lead to weight gain. Fluid buildup and chemical interactions, as well as, reactions to medications can interfere with the body’s ability to properly process foods.

Genes regulate how the human body captures, stores and releases energy from the foods eaten. When chemicals in foods interfere with this process; it’s a recipe for weight gain.

Environmental factors and lifestyle has an added role to play; people simply don’t get the exercise that they did centuries ago when the food sources were uncertain. The body’s need to store fat so that it can feed later on didn’t seem to get regulated as mankind has evolved; the body is still going to store it whether it uses it up or not. This is sometimes called the, “thrifty genotype hypothesis”.

Given having to exercise less often due to modern lifestyle; cravings for flavor and junk foods that people today have, the chemical additives and preservatives in processed foods that actually cause the human body to gain weight via a chemical reaction, as well as, ailments and medications prescribed for them and you have a recipe for a very unhealthy population.

Childhood obesity may very well be an epidemic that will not go away in the future, but at least our society now knows that people aren’t overweight because they want to be. Hopefully, these new genetic studies will promote a society where overweight children are not as maligned and abused as they have been in the past.