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Fri, Oct. 18

Graham: Dealing with a heavy hand in genetic poker

Like many people, I struggle with my weight at times. At least, the way I feel about my weight and how I look.

I have never fit my own definition of skinny. When I was a kid, I might have thought of myself differently if almost all my friends had not been thinner than me, some of them shaped more like string beans than humans. I always felt like the pudgy little brother as we hung out on the street corner with my older brother’s friends.

It wasn’t easier when I got home. No one in my family ever called me fat, or heavy or even husky, although I did occasionally wear Husky jeans from Sears. (Whose marketing idea was that brand of clothing? Could you imagine something like that today? It would be like labeling a line of kids’ jeans Fat Boy.)

But everyone in my immediate family is thin. I have watched my younger brother eat a half-gallon of ice cream at a sitting and never gain an ounce. He is still that way. Both my parents, my youngest brother, my sister … all skinny. I spent many years body-shaming myself, never feeling quite comfortable in my own skin.

But now, the news I needed to hear years ago: It’s not all my fault.

The first large study of the genetics of thin people shows they largely can thank their DNA for their body shape.

The study called STILTS -- Study Into Lean and Thin Subjects -- was published in the journal Plos Genetics last month. As reported by The Guardian and other outlets, it examined the DNA of nearly 1,600 members of a thin cohort and 2,000 people who were classified as severely obese, comparing both with 10,400 people of normal weight. In addition to several common genetic variants already identified as playing a role in obesity, the research team also found new genetic regions involved in severe obesity and some involved in healthy thinness. Then they calculated a genetic risk score.

“This research shows for the first time that healthy thin people are generally thin because they have a lower burden of genes that increase a person’s chances of being overweight and not because they are morally superior, as some people like to suggest,” professor Sadaf Farooqi of the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge was quoted in The Guardian.

“It’s easy to rush to judgment and criticise people for their weight, but the science shows that things are far more complex,” Farooqi said. “We have far less control over our weight than we might wish to think.”

So, drawing from the same deck of genes from my parents, my siblings hit on an inside straight while I ended up with a pair of threes in the game of genetics poker. They eat steak and fries and stay skinny, while I dine on a salad and don’t see a difference.

Genes are not the only answer, of course. As one scientist pointed out to The Guardian, most people become obese later in life due to an “obesogenic environment” (a sedentary lifestyle and abundance access to calorie-dense foods).

But in a world where so many kids struggle with their body image, the knowledge that genetics may have simply dealt them a bad hand might make it easier for them feel good about themselves. I think it helped me.

Now if we can only find a study showing that some people are genetically predisposed to hit a slice off the tee box.

Doug Graham is a copy editor for The Daily Courier. He can be reached at dgraham@prescottaz.com.

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