Heavy views may lighten

By Sarah Isabel Lavers, News Correspondent

New evidence in the field of genetics could potentially quash the notion that obesity is self-inflicted. Those who are obese may not personally be at fault; they may have been born with a predisposition to overeat.

In a research study published in the January 2009 issue of Nature Genetics, a monthly biomedical publication, six particular genes were found to have a strong link to both overeating and a higher Body Mass Index (BMI), a measurement used by physicians to assess a patient’s caloric nutritional status. An adult who has a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s official website. A BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese. ‘

More than 120 European scientists examined the genes in more than 90,000 men and women and found a correlation between the presence of six genes named TMEM18, KCTD15, GNPDA2, SH2B1, MTCH2 and NEGR1 and obesity.

Having one of these genes, however, is not the concern. According to the study, it is the combination of these genes that may predispose a person to want to eat more. Scientists estimated that those who are born with all six of these genes are likely to be at least five pounds overweight. Five of these genes are known to have an immense impact on brain function, which suggests that some people may then be predisposed to become obese.

‘Until 2007 no genetic associations had been found for common obesity,’ said Ines Barroso, a scientist and primary contributor to the study, in a previous interview with Health Innovations. ‘But today almost all [genes] we have uncovered are likely to influence brain function.” ‘

This, in turn, may cause overeating and thus, obesity.

Erin Cram, a biology professor at Northeastern, said genes are DNA sequences that encode proteins that have a particular function in the cell.

‘They confer traits,’ she said, ‘and these include physical characteristics, like blue eyes and behavior.’

Although genes have a major impact on how we act and who we are, Cram said environment still plays a role in molding habits and lifestyles. Awareness of these new genes may, in turn, enable one to modify their environment and make healthier decisions.

‘[This study] will be useful for those who may need behavioral modification in order to avoid becoming obese,’ she said.

Dan Levenstein, a middler biochemistry major, had a similar reaction. ‘I think people need to realize that even though you have a gene that predisposes you to something, doesn’t mean you necessarily will do that,’ he said. ‘

But there could be a danger in that, Levenstein said.

‘As someone who has this predisposition, it’s good to know, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse,’ he said. ‘One should just take precautions and be mindful of it.’

Northeastern psychology professor Emily Fox Kales said awareness of this predisposition alone will not decrease obesity rates and said there are many other factors that play a role.

‘We have long known that biological factors play a very major role in obesity,’ Kales said in an e-mail to The News, ‘but behavior and emotions are also crucial in both expressing obesity in genetically vulnerable people and in treating it successfully.’

Kales is the founder and faculty advisor for the Northeastern University Eating and Weight Concerns Project (NEWCOPE). Its goal, Kales said, is ‘to serve as a campus wide education and intervention program about body image and problematic eating and exercise behaviors.’

This student organization offers both a drop-in center and a hotline and runs various outreach programs. Additionally, NEWCOPE will be hosting various events during the week of Feb. 22 to Feb. 28, which is National Eating Disorders Week.

The NEWCOPE website cites many factors surrounding obesity and eating disorders. In particular, they point out that the media has had a major influence on people’s views of themselves and their overall eating habits. As their mission statement asserts, ‘In a decade when the media inundates us with the message ‘thin is in,’ many young men and women struggle to come to terms with their own body image.’

Although images of thin people pervade TV programs and magazine ads, obesity is still common. According to the American Heart Association’s 2008 Statistical Fact Sheet, more than 9 million children and adolescents between the ages of 6 and 19 are considered overweight.

Middler biochemistry and philosophy major Roberto Barberena said he finds the discrepancy remarkable.

‘It’s an interesting notion that an overwhelming majority of Americans are obese or overweight when the opposite is seen in the media,’ he said.

Barberena said he retains some hope this new study may discourage judgmental attitudes toward those who are obese.

‘When there is no evidence toward the absence of free will, people will automatically assume that someone has a choice of who they are or what they should be,’ he said. ‘With this new evidence, maybe people will open their eyes to refrain from judging because … perhaps it’s just in your genes.’

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