Scientists have discovered a gene which is thought to be linked to obesity. The gene in question is one that encodes the G-protein coupled receptor, Melacortin 4 (MC4R), involved in relaying intra-cellular messages within the hypothalamic cells in the brain. Activation of this receptor leads to the inhibition of food intake and so a mutation in this gene and subsequent fault in how the receptor functions could lead to the excessive consumption of food. Obesity here we come.
Blaming the obesity pandemic on genetics is a convenient way of making humankind feel as if the affliction is beyond our control and eliminates the need for us to take responsiblity for our own actions.
"Genetics" (I use the inverted commas as the term is thrown about rather too liberally in non-scientific literature), that is to say our genome, precisely what genes we are made up of, has been the key factor in our physical manifestation since the dawn of time, since that beautiful double-stranded, right-handed, 3.4 base pair per turn DNA molecule came to be.
If genes were the deciding factor in our weight and the amount of delicious cheese topped calories we masticate and devour had little significance, then our obesity rates would not have changed over the last hundred (plus) years. (I write this hypocritically, stomach replete after enjoying a 12" four cheese pizza).
This is assuming our genes have NOT changed. Perhaps the rate of mutations in this particular gene have augmented over the last century (due to increasing carbon emissions, perhaps?) and so the increase in people with voluminous derrieres is because of those devilish nucleic acids. Until the mass change in our genetic make up can be proved let us assume that the population's 'genetics' has remained more or less constant.
Mutations in the promoter of the gene (that is the sequence preceding the gene that controls its expression) were 30% more common in Indian Asians rather than European lineage. How is is then that America (and Britain in close competition), with only 0.5% of its population Indian-Asian, suffers most profusely from excessive adipose tissue?
Lifestyle is the answer. And that is the factor which has not remained constant these hundred odd years. I needn't elaborate on why lifestyle has changed and how it has changed. (Go figure.) Only to say we Westerners eat more as more is available; we eat food pumped full of crap; we move less because of our jobs. Once ensconced in our daily habits it is hard to break them especially if greater priorities do not allow it. Some people are not aware of what a healthy lifestyle entails: their parents have brought them up on T.V. dinners and sloth and they have only ever encountered fibre in the form of a wilted lettuce leaf drowning in the viscous embrace of a ketchup doused burger. For others it is not for want of trying. If you are trying to juggle a hectic career in order to sustain a family, pilates will not be top of your 'to-do' list.
Perhaps I am a little/lot jaded in my view of things. I suffer none of these misfortunes: I have access to a wealth of healthy food and exercise options and being a student I have endless hours at my disposal to work on my tush. I am also very fortunate to be educated so that I know exactly what happens to my endocrine system when one heavenly mouthful of cream and jam laden scone pervades my ileum. Others do not.
However, in a few years (and maybe as of now) due to the government vehemently campaigning for healthy living, the ignorance excuse will not hold. This government aims to have free swimming for all by 2012 to encourage exercise. As far as I am concerned every able bodied person has access to round the clock free exercise: walking. Again, my abode in cosy SW6 allows me to amble carelessly. My young, single female counterparts in SW9 are not in such an easy position. As advised in a previous column, bedroom raving is another option if the streets outside your door are crack-addict addled. (Warning to those living in W14: lots of crack addicts around that area apparently, as I was so informed walking there late last week).
I know in a very small number of cases obesity is completely out of the control of the individual. Conditions such as Bardet-Biedl syndrome are characterised by obesity. Jordan's son Harvey is thought to suffer from septo-optic dysplasia which has an effect on movement and so his weight gain is unavoidable. These are rare cases and anyone who is in a position to loose weight should. Let me clarify about whom I speak. I am not thinking of the people with a little bulge here and there. I mean the critically obese. A little bit of a belly can be quite cute and attractive in many cases. What i fear for is people's health. When the sheer effort of walking is too much and lethargy leadens each lumbering footstep, that is when one should rethink the way one lives one's life. Our appearance says a lot about us and the way in which we operate. I know of a CEO who never employed the over-weight secretaries because they exuded an air of slowness. Harsh, but possibly true.
So, the solutions. There exist drugs which target these mutated, malfunctioning proteins. Tensofensine, was seen to reduce weight by 10% over a six month period by altering appetite-controlling neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline.
These are indeed solutions but they do not teach people moderation and how to lead a healthy lifestyle. Why bother eating less and exercising if we can just pop a pill? It will take time to undo the bad habits which have crept up on us, and even longer to being the incidence of obesity back down but we must start towards this goal.