That’s been the traditional cry of fatties the world over, wanting to blame their parents for a rotten hand in the genetic card game rather than accept their obesity is due to gluttony and sloth. It’s also been the cry of the terminally thin – those “ectomorphs” who seem to struggle to pack on muscle and weight regardless of how much they eat. But are they right?
Take a look at your genes
Research has shown that part of this issue could be due to your FTO gene. In a European study, people with 2 copies of this FTO gene were up to 3kgs (6.6lbs) heavier than people without this gene. Carrying the gene made you 70% more likely to be overweight than if you don’t have any copies at all. So it seems that those that are obese and those that are skinny have a common genetic enemy – the evil FTO gene.
In this article I’m going to take a look at the facts behind this statement and look at whether we really are prisoners of our genes. We’ll also take a look at what you can do to overcome your own genetic shortcomings and make weight loss or weight gain that little bit easier for you. Whilst the research behind this came from studying overweight people, the implications for why some struggle to gain weight are also huge. Read on…
What the F is FTO anyway?
Good question. Let’s look at the background to this first so we can better understand the research, and truly find out whether we’re doomed to the body shape our genes dictate.
FTO is a gene sat in a particular part of our DNA. Originally it was found in mice genes (scientists study mice a lot) and was on a similar part of the DNA strand to a gene for fused toes (don’t worry, even if you have 2 copies of it you’re not about to get some strange webbed feet issues later in life). Humans and mice share a reasonable amount of genetic similarities, so the name got taken along when studied in humans.
Researchers initially started to look at those with Type II diabetes (one of the components of metabolic syndrome), so see if there were any genetic markers that predispose people to getting this affliction. They do this with large population samples (in this case about 3,000 people from the UK, of which about a third had Type II diabetes). By comparing genes that exist more frequently in
people with Type II diabetes vs. the general population, they started to point the finger at FTO. Further population studies of over 30,000 Europeans confirmed this – that the FTO gene in humans is strongly correlated with an increase in obesity.
BMI and all that
Now, before you start spitting your cornflakes and claiming that BMI is a load of horse doo-doo, hold on. The researchers also recognised the limitations of BMI as a measurement of obesity, and controlled for variables such as height, skin-fold body fat tests and waist circumference. So the people that had this FTO gene certainly were fatter than their non-FTO carrying counterparts. This has been backed up by countless studies since.
How much fatter?
Good question – as I mentioned in the introduction the people carrying 2 copies of this FTO gene were carrying an average of 3kgs (6.6lbs) more weight than those with no copies at all (we each carry 2 copies of every gene – one from Mum and one from Dad – sometimes they’re the same, sometimes they’re different). Carriers with only one copy of the gene were still marginally fatter – carrying on average 1.2kgs (2.6lbs) more weight than their FTO-free peers.
In mouse models, you can give a certain FTO mutation to mice and see a whopping 22% increase in body weight and body fat levels. But anyone studying mice and humans will note we’re a little different – and it appears that mice show an increase in spontaneous exercise activity when they do not have the gene, whereas humans show a decrease in food consumption when they do not have the gene. Two sides of the same coin.
Put another way – those people that are carrying 2 copies of the FTO gene are found to spontaneously eat between 125 and 280 calories per day MORE than those with no copies. (Reference)
So are some people predisposed to being fat and others thin?
It would certainly seem that genetics has an ability to control what we want to eat. One famous study into this was conducted in the Vermont Prison System during the 1960’s and 70’s by Dr. Ethan Sims. His study aim was simple – prisoners would get early release if they were able to gain 25% of their bodyweight. They were allowed to eat as much as they could in order to achieve this aim.
What’s funny is that these guys weren’t the first that Sims tried to make gain weight. He first started with a group of his University students, asked to eat 2-3x as much food as normal over a period of 3-5 months. Quite a few dropped out. Those who stayed the course were unable to achieve weight gains more than 12% – it seemed there was an upper limit their over-feeding could achieve. He needed more “motivated” subjects – so chose prisoners with the carrot of early release as a method to make them stick to the dietary protocol.
The prisoners took to the task with gusto. They gained weight at approximately double the rate of the students, reaching an average of 26% above their initial lean weight. Sims noted:
“This suggests that achieving a serious gain in weight cannot be undertaken as a secondary occupation”
The prisoners needed to spend all their focus gaining weight. They spontaneously reduced exercise activity and movement patterns. And they ate and ate and ate. Some of these guys were consuming 9-10,000 calories per day!
Here’s the kicker
Not everyone was as successful at gaining weight as one another. Some of the prisoners really struggled to reach the goal. Others never reached that goal at all – in spite of eating more calories than counterparts that had already hit their target. Quite a few of the men developed a “spontaneous aversion to breakfast” – they physically struggled to pie down enough calories to force their weight up.
Subsequent research has backed this up – some people are just physically incapable of consuming such large amounts of calories. Trying to do so causes them to vomit, and the general over-consumption of calories causes them to move around more
than they normally would.
So does this mean we’re all prisoners of our genetics?
Are we doomed to be whatever weight our genes dictate? Are skinny people unable to gain mass, forever being the weakling? Are fat people simple victims of genetic circumstance – not greedy or slothful, just predisposed to eat more of the available calories than others?
Not necessarily. Certainly some people will have it harder than others. And the simple “calories in vs. calories out” argument is confounded when people spontaneously overeat (and don’t remember doing so) or spontaneously move more than necessary (without noticing it). This is called the “set point” theory – and dictates that our bodies will keep us within a certain weight range which is optimal for our own individual genetics. That’s going to be the subject of a future article, but for now let’s look at what we can do to overhaul our genes.
Let’s start with the fatter guys
If you’re overweight then sure, you might have the FTO gene problem highlighted above. This is going to make life a little more tricky because you’ll have to overcome a natural desire to consume more food. But it isn’t impossible.
One of the biggest issues here is the food choice available today. Our ancestors bequeathed these genes upon us, yet the rates of obesity in the developed world far exceed anything seen in the past. We can’t just blame genes alone for our outsized waistbands – otherwise we wouldn’t see the alarming rate of increase in obesity seen in the US in the past few decades. Historical data show we are eating more – this article shows in 1965 we were (in industrialised countries) eating around 2950 calories per person, per day. By the turn of the millennium this had increased to nearly 3,400 per person, per day. It equates to nearly a pound per person per week of weight gain. There’s little wonder why over 66% of Americans are overweight or obese.
So what? The problem is the type of food on offer and our relationship with it. Sure, if you have this gene then you are more likely to overeat. But what is it that you overeat? Studies have highlighted that FTO carries have a preference for high fat diets, are
more likely to under-report their food intake (a common problem – although it seems it’s involuntary rather than deliberate lying) and are less likely to participate in leisure time physical activity.
Fat happens to be a very satiating nutrient – for most people. As discussed in my article on macronutrients, it is wise to choose nutrients that fill you up and keep you feeling fuller for longer – fat does this. But it seems the FTO carriers are less affected by the satiation of fat, and should look for lower fat dietary options.
It also seems that the FTO group participate in less physical activity than average. This has the double-negative impact of meaning they burn less calories AND they eat more.
So what’s the solution?
Good question. Obviously exercise is going to help here – in mice the FTO gene is all about activity levels, but in humans it is not. So we can counter some of the excess calories you will eat by adding exercise into your daily routine. I’m not a fan of cardio normally, but in this case it may be warranted to help shed the pounds, especially for women.
Far better is to focus on free weight, resistance exercises (if you’re a man – chances are women won’t want to get muscular). This will help to remodel your body so that the excess calories you are naturally drawn to eat will go predominantly toward building muscle rather than fat. Check out the training section of the site for more information. By starting light and choosing a programme with progressive overload you will get hooked on lifting weights. This is important for a long term weight loss approach – adopt this as your new lifestyle and you will be able to keep the pounds of fat off.
What about diet?
Here at LeanMassGains.com we preach the practice of Intermittent Fasting. This is an approach where you purposefully avoid calorie consumption for a short period of time (above your normal overnight fast) on a periodic or regular basis. Fasting is certain to help people with the FTO gene, because you’re deliberately avoiding food for the period of time that you fast. If you follow the approach I advocate here of 16 hour fasts followed by 8 hour feeds each day then you will have less time in which to over-eat and you’ll have more insulin sensitivity to boot.
From a macro perspective you should try and eat more protein. Protein is the most filling and satiating nutrient you can consume. By choosing lean protein sources at every meal you will stay fuller for longer, meaning you’re even less likely to overeat. This article is getting a little too long, so check out the free course on this site for an in-depth version of the diet. It cycles the nutrients
across training and rest days to ensure you don’t get bored of what you eat, which is another really important aspect of long term dietary adherence.
Sorry, I haven’t forgotten you. Skinny guys who just can’t pack on the pounds are going to get the opposite advice. If you’re the sort of person who would struggle to gain enough weight to get out of prison, you’ll need to put more thought into what you’re eating and what exercise choices you make.
For a start, endless cardio is right out. Ditch any running, cycling, rowing or swimming you do. If you really want to bulk up you might consider dropping the team sports you participate in as well. The prisoners in the Sims study cut back on their exercise routine and so should you.
That said, there is a type of training that will suit your needs. It’s the same as the fatter guys are going to use above, and it’s something the Sims inmates weren’t able to leverage to help get them out of jail. It’s resistance weight training. Keep
your sessions short (Stronglifts or Starting Strength workouts take no more than 45 mins to start off with) and attack the weights with intensity. This won’t burn many calories during your workout, but it will provide the stimulus to grow that your muscles need. Once you get to sets of heavy deadlifts they will increase appetite like no other lift around. This training alone won’t make you big though – we need to sort out your diet for that.
How to eat big
If you’re a skinny guy then you just don’t eat enough. Studies also show thin people overestimate how much they eat (the boffins are still not sure if this is linked to FTO or not) just the same way fatter folk underestimate their food intake. We need to sort that out.
For starters you’ll need to eat more fat. Pack in fattier cuts of meat, go for full fat options in dairy, and don’t be afraid to put oil on your food. This doesn’t have to be unhealthy – fish oil is good for you, monounsaturated vegetable oil is good for you (like olive oil) and even some forms of fatty meat (grass-fed beef anyone?) have been shown to be beneficial. Remember the words of Sims from
his seminal study:
“Achieving a serious gain in weight cannot be undertaken as a secondary occupation”
Eat like you would if it meant you could get out of jail early.
What else will help?
You should also ditch the normal recommendations from dieticians about not drinking calories. Load up on Starbucks (go for those hideous Frappucino things), drink whole milk (GOMAD diet is great), make sure you have full on Coke and Pepsi rather than those tame diet versions. Throw the healthy eating handbook out of the window.
Fast food is your friend – chow down on McDonald’s and KFC – you’ll note that it doesn’t really fill you up much and you’ll be hungry soon afterwards anyway. Remember that you don’t need to overeat by much to gain lean muscle mass (I assume you don’t want to get fat whilst adding muscle) – check out this post I wrote on how many calories you need for a one pound muscle mass gain – that should ensure you only put on muscles. Making a concerted effort to overeat on training days (especially post workout) will really help you pack on the pounds. Just be sure you don’t restrict your intake to compensate on rest days, or the work you put in will have gone to waste.
Should we be fasting too?
The jury is out here – if you struggle to gain weight whilst eating 24/7, then no. Fasting won’t help you consume more calories and the health benefits of fasting are probably not worth the increased effort it will take you to eat during your 8 hour feeding window. That doesn’t mean the nutritional advice available on this site isn’t suitable for you – it still is – but you just have longer throughout the day to try and get the calories down your neck. The macronutrient timing advice is just as valid for you as it is for anyone that’s overweight.
Bringing it all together
It seems that there are many things that are there to try us as we look to lose weight, or to gain weight. Some people have an easier time of it than others. Some of you will struggle to gain weight and others will struggle just as hard to lose it. But just because our genes and our environment make things harder is not a reason to quit. You can still overcome this adversity if you put the work in.
As I said above, part of that is changing your lifestyle. You should find an exercise programme that you enjoy, and will continuously come back to. Find something that makes you happy, whether it’s walking your dog or playing with your kids. Change your eating habits to reflect and recognise the fact that you’re special and need to be more careful with what you eat.
You should at least recognise that being fat and being thin are two sides of the same coin. Stop judging and blaming other people, and start trying to understand how to learn from your opposite FTO carrier about how their diet and exercise choices might help you. I’ll leave you with the words of Dr. William Bennett M.D., former Editor of the Harvard Medical School Health Letter:
“If we lived in a world that prized being fat instead of thin, Sims’ results might be attributed to the prisoners’ lack of character. One of his volunteers, for example, began at 132 pounds. He struggled resolutely for more than thirty weeks to gain weight, ate great amounts of food, and reduced his activity to less than half its former level, but was never able to push above 144 pounds. He simply didn’t have the “will power” to get fat.”
What do you think? Is it genetics, or is it lifestyle choices? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.