If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, chances are, you’ve asked yourself at least one of these questions:
“Why can’t I lose this weight and keep it off?”
“Why was that diet so successful for my friend but not for me?”
“Why doesn’t cutting calories work for me?”
For decades, we’ve all been told that simply eating less and being more active is the key to lasting weight loss. And in some respects, this is partially true. But this oversimplified strategy is a recipe for failure for millions of people. After all, if it were as simple as eating less and moving more, obesity would not be a problem in our country like it is today.
Recent scientific discoveries have shown us that cutting calories and increasing exercise are not a one-size-fits-all solution. You may know someone — maybe it’s you — who eats healthy and exercises but still carries around excess weight. It’s not just about calories in, calories out. In fact, each person is born with certain traits that govern their eating habits, which foods they crave, how hungry they feel, and how effective exercise is. The key is to know which genetic traits you have so you can use them to your advantage.
DNA, weight, and you: the connection you need to know about
The discovery of DNA in the 1950s was truly a milestone in human history. DNA opened the door to molecular biology and shed light on why and how traits, diseases, and different qualities run in families. Since the discovery of DNA, scientists have continued to learn more about DNA and how it makes people who they are.
But DNA isn’t just about eye color or genetic diseases. DNA may affect even the smallest processes in your body, including how you lose weight and build habits.
If you’ve tried time and again to lose weight on traditional diet and exercise plans and haven’t been successful, it may have nothing to do with willpower or effort. And it may have everything to do with factors you were born with — and weren’t even aware of until now.
DNA and dietary fat
Your genes can determine how you store fat and how your body uses it. For most people, excess calories are turned into fat that is stored by the body to be used later. But, if you have certain genetic variants, eating certain dietary fats can affect your weight more than someone who doesn’t have these traits.
People who have a variant of a gene known as PPAR tend to gain weight more easily than others when they eat certain dietary fats. Specifically, saturated fat that is found in animal foods such as meat and dairy products can more easily cause weight gain for these people. The typical American diet is high in saturated fat with an emphasis on meat, fried foods, and cheese — so cutting back on these foods takes effort.
PFAR can impact health in other ways, too. People who have different PPAR variants may have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome includes obesity, high LDL “bad” cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. We’ve seen how type 2 diabetes and obesity tend to run in families, and this gene may be partially responsible for that link.
But there is good news. Dietary fat does not have to be the enemy if you know which types to eat. People with a specific PPAR variant should focus on eating unsaturated fats, which includes many delicious and healthy foods. Monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, macadamia nuts, and avocados can help improve heart health and avoid the weight gain of saturated fats. In addition, certain polyunsaturated fats, specifically omega-3s found in walnuts, flax seeds, and fatty fish, are extremely healthy choices that will help you look and feel better without causing unhealthy weight gain.
Finding out if you have one of these genetic traits could be a game-changer if you tend to gain weight easily and/or have health problems despite eating less and exercising.
Food cravings have a genetic link
We all know when we’re having a food craving. Whether it’s that slice of pizza or a donut, sometimes it simply feels like you have to have a particular food. Some people feel that they have a particularly strong sweet tooth, while others may crave high-fat foods like French fries.
Cravings are extremely hard to overcome and ignore. Unfortunately, people have been told that if they crave food and give in, they simply lack willpower.
DNA tells us that willpower may have very little to do with food cravings. A person’s predetermined genetic code actually plays a huge role in what foods they crave and how much they eat.
People who have a variation in a gene known as SLC2a2 often crave more sugar. This is because the gene variation interrupts the signal that tells your brain when you’ve eaten enough sugar. This could explain why some people are happy with one small cookie and others could just keep eating more cookies without getting that signal to stop.
Eating sugar may also be directly linked to feeling full for people with this genetic variant. They may find that they have to eat something sweet in order to feel satiated. They may eat dessert at the end of every meal and have a tendency to eat larger amounts of sugary foods in general, even if they don’t eat more food overall.
Eating large amounts of sugar and processed carbohydrates isn’t healthy. It can lead to weight gain, as the extra carbs are stored as fat. It may also increase your risk of getting type 2 diabetes.
People who have this genetic trait don’t need to go on extreme no-sugar diets to get healthier and slim down. In fact, research has found that satisfying your craving for sweets by eating whole fruit (not juice) is an effective way to help you feel full without eating unhealthy, processed sweets. So, to help with your healthy eating goals, trading sweets for fruit can be particularly beneficial.
In addition to cravings, DNA may have an effect on how foods taste to us. People with a TAS2R38 genetic variant may be especially sensitive to bitter flavors. Because some vegetables are bitter, this can lead to an aversion to healthy foods. If you have this genetic trait, you may have always thought you were a picky eater or that you simply didn’t like vegetables.
People with this variant may benefit from finding creative ways to implement vegetables into their diet while minimizing the bitter taste. This may include making healthy smoothies or cooking bitter vegetables with sweeter ones to tone down their flavor and make them more palatable. Adding different herbs is also a good way to add flavor without calories or sodium, and makes vegetables more interesting.
Hunger cues, fullness, and DNA
Certain genetic traits play a crucial role in your appetite levels and satiety. Some people have a variant of the FTO gene, which regulates hunger and fullness cues from the brain. People who have this trait may feel hungrier in general and may eat more than those who don’t have it.
Several FTO variants change the way the brain responds to food and may cause higher levels of hunger hormones like ghrelin. But, you have to know which FTO variants you have — because some types benefit more from low-fat diets, and others from high-protein plans.
Perhaps you’ve already heard about the MC4R gene, which has a powerful effect on metabolism and a person’s tendency toward being overweight. In fact, variants in this gene are the leading cause of genetic-related obesity. A variant of MC4R causes both higher appetite and a decreased ability to feel full. This makes it more difficult to stop eating during a meal and results in frequent snacking and a preference for high-fat foods.
The TAS2R38 gene that causes bitter food aversions can also impact hunger hormones in certain variations. Specifically, TAS2R38 disrupts the brain’s response to leptin. The hormone leptin tells the brain to stop eating when it’s full. But sometimes, the brain cannot properly receive the signals from leptin, so it doesn’t tell you to stop eating. This is known as leptin resistance, and it’s a well-known factor in many people who struggle with obesity and overeating.
DNA, weight, and exercise: a complex relationship
We know that exercise makes us feel good. It increases endorphins, improves mood almost instantly, and can relieve stress. But why is it so hard to exercise when we’re trying to lose weight? Often, it’s due to frustration because our body just isn’t responding the way we think it should. Perhaps you see other people at the gym who seem to be slimming down with ease, and you are working just as hard and seeing very little results.
With genes governing things like appetite, food cravings, and fat storage, you’re probably not surprised to learn that they also have an effect on how physical activity works for you. People who have a specific variant of the LPL gene may lose more fat after endurance training than those who don’t have the trait.
The research has only been done on women thus far, and more work needs to be done in this area. But, it’s helpful to know whether you have this trait so you can have realistic expectations about exercise and create a plan that will work for you without frustration.
How do I get my DNA tested to address better health and weight loss?
The genes discussed here are just a few of the complex DNA variants that control how and why you lose weight and how easily you can adopt healthier habits. Knowing which of these genes you have is an important first step toward achieving your health goals.
You can take a simple, painless DNA test that will reveal which genetic variants you have and how they are affecting your health and weight. You can find out what types of foods you should eat, which ones you should avoid, why you feel the way you do, and how you can exercise to maximize your weight-loss efforts or achieve your overall health goals. In short, you can stop wasting your time on diets and exercise plans that aren’t working for you.
Our Vivaliti DNA Program has been designed with your needs in mind. After you get your DNA results, you’ll be presented with a comprehensive, fully personalized plan based on your DNA that will tell you what you can do to look and feel your best starting today. Order your genetic test to unlock your full potential!
Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on December 5, 2018