Should we blame our genes for our obesity - or are we to blame? And what role do our parents and grandparents play?

These were some of the key questions discussed at a seminar on Obesity organised by the Guild of Health Writers in September and sponsored by the British Heart Foundation.

“Before we have taken a mouthful of anything we are already pre exposed to obesity, diabetes and premature death because of what are mother did and even our children are exposed to obesity, diabetes and premature death because of what their grandmother did.” This was the view of Professor David Haslam, chair of the National Obesity Forum.

Professor Haslam explained the integrated genetic hypothesis. This suggests that our level of obesity is influenced by our predisposed genetic makeup. However, this isn’t just a simple case of what genes we inherit.

Professor Haslam went on to introduce the term “epigenetic”, a recently discovered genetic expression which changes the appearance and purpose of our genes. Effectively this acts as a control system of ‘switches’ that tell your genes to switch on or off. This altering genetic tool could be the reason why some people are predisposed to obesity.

Professor Haslam suggests that this begins as early as pregnancy. For instance we all have a gene for diabetes and a gene for healthy long life. However, if our mother while pregnant indulged in large amounts of burgers, fats and carbohydrates then our already existing genes for diabetes would be strengthened and for long life would be subdued. This would increase the likelihood of diabetes, obesity and premature death.

If true this is a very significant finding. It means that what people do doesn’t just affect their own health. It could affect or even determine the health of their children and grandchildren.

However, research suggests there may also be other reasons for obesity – not least what we individually choose to do.

“If you ask people why they eat, they say that they eat because they are hungry, but my research shows that hunger only accounted for 70% of what they consume.” That’s the report of Professor Jane Ogden, a leading health psychologist and researcher from Surrey University. Her research identified a link between psychology and obesity.

Unlike Professor Haslam, Professor Ogden believes that obesity stems from a psychological foundation. Her presentation aimed to convince the audience that, “Obesity is in fact a psychological problem” and it is the relationship we have with food which needs to be taken into account.

Professor Ogden suggested that our genes cannot be so different to those in the 1970. So why do we have a sudden obesity epidemic which did not exist then? If not much has changed since then how can we say that it’s our genes?

Professor Ogden believes that our individual beliefs and behaviour towards food are responsible. She used ‘mindless eating’ to described this behaviour and described many different reasons why we overeat. These included mood control, when we socialise and how we are feeling on a particular day.

When asked what could be the solution to managing an individual’s obesity, Professor Ogden believes that medical and surgical interventions are key. However, she found that success in surgery only occurs if those people who did lose weight via this method begin to realise that their obesity was due to their behaviour. Tackling their attitude and responses to food is the only way obesity can be managed over the longer term.

Whether we are more influenced by the case for epigenetics or the psychological case the bottom line is probably the same. We need to change the way we think about food, so that we eat only when we are hungry and to eat good quality food. If Professor Ogden is correct this will be good for our own health. If Professor Haslam is correct this will be good for our children and grandchildren’s health.

Sumira Riaz  September 2013