Addressing Genetic Effects on Weight in Children

Are children of obese parents destined to also struggle with body weight? Is there anything we can do before a child is overweight, to modify the tendencies kids have inherited? At The Obesity Society’s (TOS) annual meeting, Dr. Jane Wardle, PhD gave a presentation about the genetic effects of weight, addressing questions like these.

Dr. Wardle talked about the effects of maternal and paternal weight on kids, explaining that if the parents of a child are both obese, the child is more likely to also be obese, compared to if just one parent is obese. This effect is seen even in kids adopted at birth, where the birth parents have no influence on the child’s eating habits. What is it, exactly, that makes ‘weight’ something you can inherit? Dr. Wardle believes that the genetic effects of weight are primarily related to appetite; this is good news, she says, because appetite is potentially more easily modified than something like fat mass.

Dr Wardle’s research has identified inherited appetite traits in babies as young as 3 months old – long before a ‘weight problem’ would begin to present itself otherwise. With growing evidence of the genetic influence on weight, there is exciting potential to warn parents of a child’s tendency towards obesity, before the child is overweight. This translates into a chance to change the trajectory of something that is genetically influenced.

Some of the potential targets that Dr. Wardle discussed included:
1. Food availability and accessibility (hide junk food, put healthy food in reach)
2. Set norms for portion sizes (use small plates, and don’t pile food on)
3. TV viewing (no eating while watching tv, and switch out tv time for active time)
4. Bedtime rules (there’s growing evidence that lack of sleep is tied to weight gain)

Dr. Wardle acknowledged that the implementation of changes is hard: “Home is where we can protect our kids from the ‘evils of society’ – but it’s incredibly difficult to modify the home environment.” She had attempted to recruit volunteers for a study where she would help parents make changes in the home, with the hopes of fighting weight gain in kids. She got no volunteers, with parents saying things like “my older kids won’t be willing to do it”, “I don’t want arguments at meal times”, and “I want family to enjoy meals, not fight during them”. Although the idea of fighting childhood obesity before it sets in is very exciting, Wardle says in reality there would likely be parental resistance to take on a high burden of work: they’re not motivated to prevent something “that hasn’t happened yet [obesity]”.

Dr. Sunil Bhoyrul, expert bariatric surgeon in San Diego, spoke with us about the potential to use genetic information to help prevent and treat obesity. He said: “There is potential to tailor health and wellness strategies in children based on their genotype and on physiological data that we can capture using wireless technology and even gaming apps. The research presented at TOS, as well as new research from Harvard, shows us that in the immediate future we need to get smart about tailoring medical and surgical preventative and therapeutic strategies to a patient’s genotype. Additionally, I firmly believe that we are already at the stage where we can identify patients who are at higher risk of failure from surgery based on their genotype.  The future is now!  It’s all very cool.” Dr Bhoyrul was also interviewed by NBC San Diego, about genetic tests and obesity treatment.

As these obesity experts continue their research into ways to prevent and treat obesity, our obesity experts from around the country shared 10 tips on how help their own children make healthy choices. You can read their tips here.

by Emma Squillace


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