Is obesity related to genetics?

Oct 3, 2013

Childhood obesity could be related to the absence of one particular hormone according to research presented this week during a conference in Huntington.

Dr. Jeffrey Friedman

  Losing weight is as simple as having more self-control. At least that’s what some think. A new study though shows that maybe it’s not that simple, maybe obesity is tied to a hormone called Leptin. And when people don’t have enough of it in their system, their body tells them to eat more.

Dr. Jeffrey Friedman of Rockefeller University in New York, presented these findings at a Childhood Obesity Conference in Huntington hosted by the Marshall University School of Medicine. The focus was on fighting childhood obesity and its causes, including alternative ideas like Friedman’s.

Friedman said he along with other researchers want to look deeper into body weight than just saying people need more self-control.

“We study the genes and biological factors that regulate body weight and we now know that there are several genes that when defective can cause obesity in humans and this has led us to a deeper understanding of the neural circuitry in our brain that regulates appetite and weight,” Friedman said.

Scientists are studying genes related to the hormone Leptin, which plays a role in regulating the appetite. Leptin is a protein produced by fatty tissue and is believed to regulate the fat storage in the body. Scientists believe people with low or absent levels of Leptin tend to eat much more. Friedman said these are factors that people can’t control.

"This is not simply a matter of lack of will power or a toxic environment, that different people have different genetic endowments that lead some people to become obese and others not," Friedman said.

“I think the bottom line here is that this is not simply a matter of lack of will power or a toxic environment, that different people have different genetic endowments that lead some people to become obese and others not,” Friedman said.  

Friedman said these findings could lead to an entire new way of thinking for scientists.

He says it could take 10 to 20 years for those treatments to emerge. He also says only a small amount of people are lacking Leptin, but that it could lead to other research that might combine Leptin with other drugs to solve some obesity  cases. Friedman said obese individuals need a new mindset when trying to lose weight.

“It should focus our attention much more on health than weight per say. And the health benefits of weight loss can be achieve with pretty modest amounts of weight loss. And so I think it’s going to be important based on what we know about the biology to not focus on people normalizing their weight, but rather reducing their weight sufficiently to improve their healt,” Friedman said..

Athar Nawab is a first year medical school student at Marshall. He said Friedman presented an entirely new way of looking at obesity.

“I thought his ideas of obesity and the genes involved were pretty enlightening and it’s a different way of thinking about it as opposed to blaming the person that’s obese, there could be deeper issues,” Nawab said.

Michael Andryka is also in his first year of medical school.

“It’s not necessarily an issue of will power or environment, but there may be some hormonal control and some genetic role. And I think this is probably a pretty promising line of research or it seems to be,” Andryka said.

The students think it could open the doors for different treatments as they become doctors.