09/30/2014 09:07 EDT | Updated 11/30/2014 05:59 EST

Weight Problems Can Stick With a Family for Generations

The question whether obesity is solely caused by diet and lifestyle choices or whether a person's genetic make-up plays a role as well has long been debated among scientists without producing conclusive answers. While several genes have been identified as potentially involved in excessive weight gain, the interactions between genes and environmental factors like food supply and consumption, sedentary lifestyle, sleep deprivation, and high stress levels are still not fully understood.

Genetics are unlikely to explain the relatively recent obesity epidemic that affects growing parts of the world population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although genes regulate how our bodies capture, store, and release energy from food, changes in the genetic make-up of humans occur too slowly to be responsible for the rapid rise of weight problems and related diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer we are seeing today. In any case, if mutations of this kind in fact occurred over time, they should not be all that recent, some experts suggest.

One recently completed study tried to shed more light on this issue by following entire families over several generations to track their dietary and physical health, with particular interest in their weight. Most studies like this are contemporary in nature, meaning they only focus on the present health status people are in, regardless of their ancestral roots.

Knowing about a person's family history, especially the socio-economic conditions that persisted over generations, is important to understand, for example, the correlations between financial or educational limitations and obesity, according to Dr. Tetyana Pudrovska, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas and one of the authors of the study report.

"People who have less money and less education tend to engage in less physical activity. They tend to eat more calorie-dense food and less fruits and vegetables. There is a vicious circle. Poverty increases obesity and obesity increases poverty over the life course and again," she said in an interview with KVUE, a Texas-based affiliate of ABC News.

By looking at the larger picture, it is not too far-fetched to think that your parents' education and social status affect your metabolism. There may be physiological changes or physiological processes triggered by stress from certain social and economical disadvantages, or there may be detrimental and dysfunctional behaviour based on lack of awareness and education. The fact is, they can continue for long periods of time, affecting generation after generation. It's like it gets under your skin and stays there, Dr. Pudrovska said.

Obviously, socio-economic distress, even if it persists long-term, is only one possible factor in the occurrence of weight problems and other related health concerns. Bad eating habits, lack of physical exercise, stress at work, sleeplessness, and poor lifestyle choices can affect people of all walks of life. The difference is how easy or how hard it is for someone to implement the necessary changes to make improvements. Here, material and educational limitations can play a significant role.

Among the many reasons why poverty and health problems are so closely connected is the lack of good choices poor people can make for themselves, even if they wanted to. Healthy, nutritious food is too expensive, often not even available in low-income neighbourhoods; opportunities to be physically active are limited due to absence of parks and other recreational facilities; finding preventive healthcare is difficult if not impossible; education in diet and health matters is generally lacking.

Growing up in such an environment can set the tracks in the wrong direction from the start. And more often then not, they lead, as Dr. Pudrovska said, into a vicious circle that is hard to escape.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.


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