January is the start of the self-improvement season: a time to push the reset button and embrace healthy habits. In fact, it turns out that weight loss is the number one New Year's resolution.
Almost 60 per cent of us can be categorized as over weight. We all face tremendous pressure to drop the pounds -- pressure that comes from every direction: magazine covers, talk show hosts, family members, and health care professionals. It is no surprise that battling the bulge ranks as the preeminent resolution, higher than, say, giving more to charity, volunteering at an animal shelter, or hanging with the family. (My noble resolution, by the way, is to eat less chocolate.)
As we commence our weight-loss odyssey, it is worth reminding ourselves to avoid all gimmicks and strategy portrayed as "the answer." There are no elixirs, exercise routines, or pills that will allow us to magically shed pounds. The basic formula for long-term success is well known: adopt a healthy and active lifestyle that includes eating less and more nutritiously. I know, easy to say, tough to do.
New gimmicks are always emerging, preying on our desire to make weight loss easier, quicker, and more sustainable. And increasingly these gimmicks are clothed in the language of science, promising success through things like detoxification and metabolism enhancement. All complete hogwash, of course.
A new science-infused gimmick has entered in the diet marketplace: genetic testing.
Over the past few years there has been more and more research on (and media coverage of) the genetics of obesity. This work has been accompanied by a growth in companies offering direct-to-consumer genetic tests that will, supposedly, allow you to diet more effectively and efficiently. The websites that sell these tests often look deceptively sophisticated and scientifically informed, promising individualized diet plans that are specifically tailored to your genetic makeup.
In the context of diet and weight gain, however, it remains phenomenally difficult to disentangle the role of genes and environment. Despite the promises of these websites, the currently known "obesity" and "diet" genes simply aren't that informative, at least in a practical sense. For example, the effect of even the most predictive obesity gene -- something called the FTO gene -- is quite modest, accounting for only a few extra pounds.
I am willing to bet that researchers will never find an all-powerful "fat gene" (or genes) that we can blame for our weight-gain troubles. There will never be a gene therapy that will allow us to eat what we want. Genetic testing is not the answer.
Why do I say this so confidently?
First, there are undoubtedly numerous genes that impact things like how we taste, when and how we feel full, and how our bodies metabolize and store certain nutrients. All of these genes likely interact with one another to ensure that we continue to consume calories and, sadly, stockpile fat.
From a biological perspective, diet engages an astoundingly complex system. Indeed, millions of years of evolution have made us into incredibly efficient eating and fat-maintenance machines. Our bodies crave the status quo -- even if it is less than healthy or aesthetically ideal.
Second, emerging research tells us that even when people get their genes tested, it does little to promote healthy behaviour. In other words, there is no reason to think that genetic testing will lead to more successful dieting because, sadly, we rarely change our habits in the long-term. Think of it this way: If a weigh scale doesn't motivate change, why should a genetic test?
Third, it is pretty obvious that the current obesity problem can't be blamed on genetics alone. While genes play a role in the weight-gain story, they are just one piece of the puzzle. Our genes haven't changed much for thousands of years. Our environment has. Yes, some individuals may have been dealt genes that may make it particularly difficult to deal with our obesogenic world -- a love of fatty food, a slightly slower metabolism, a dislike of exercise (possibly genetic?). But the environment hugely influences all of these factors. Advertising, poor access to healthy food alternatives, socioeconomic conditions, sleep habits, work environments, and even the bacteria that lives in our gut, seem likely -- either alone or in combination -- to overwhelm the role that genetics might play.
So, for now, place genetic testing in the "gimmick" category. Eat less and eat better -- regardless of your genetic allotment.
Meantime, I am going to have one last piece of chocolate.