This is Why Some People Naturally Have a Harder Time Losing Weight

The study may help us develop a new biomarker for obesity and even type 2 diabetes.

Like many Americans, I struggle with my weight and have trouble losing it. I’ve always had something of a belly. Exercise and dieting have left me frustrated. I usually hit a wall after losing about 20 lbs. or so. A new study finds that it might not be my lifestyle, but my genetic makeup. The results were published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 

First, let’s be clear. The scientists in this study do peg the growing worldwide obesity epidemic, going on now for the past 40 years or so, to over-nutrition and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Even so, “numerous familial studies also provide strong evidence for heritable contributions to obesity,” study authors write. Over 100 genes have somehow been implicated. But how much they impact weight and how they work exactly has been unclear, until now.

So it may be a poor diet and little exercise that makes us overweight. But stubborn weight loss might not be. I mean, we can’t be held responsible for how our body stores fat. As a result, society may have to change its perception on what’s healthy and attractive and what isn’t. Because some people just might be more naturally curvy than others. How do we know? Researchers found a certain genetic mutation which tells our body to store much more fat than necessary. And millions of Americans have it.

Although what you eat and how much you exercise are important, how much fat your body stores and how quickly you lose weight may be up to your genetic code. Credit: Getty Images.

This mutation at one time was helpful for our species. In the dawn of humanity and perhaps during other periods of history, food wasn’t always plentiful. So building up a nice layer of fat could help you survive the lean times, whereas others might fall away. Today however, there’s a stigma against being overweight, regardless of one’s biological situation. And of course it’s worse for women than men.

Dr. Vann Bennett was the senior author on this study. He’s a professor of biochemistry at Duke University. Bennett worked with Damaris Lorenzo, an assistant professor of cell biology. She hails from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Although it was discovered in mice, researchers believe this mutation is present across many mammalian species, including our own.

This study surrounds the gene ankyrin-B. Dr. Bennett discovered this gene, and a former PhD. student noticed that mice who had the mutation were fatter than those who didn’t. All a gene is, is a set of instructions on how to make a certain protein. This particular gene’s protein connects a cell’s membrane to other important proteins, and can be found in almost every tissue in the body.

There’s one problem however, no one knows how the gene works. The leading theory today is that obesity has to do with appetite control centers in the brain. Dr. Bennett wondered whether the problem emanated not from the head but elsewhere.  

Ankyrin-B may serve as a biomarker for stubborn weight loss. Credit: Getty Images.

What scientists did in this study was “design” mice, by injecting their DNA with the human variant of the gene ankyrin-B. Then a surprising thing happened. The mice grew fat and quickly. Looking more closely, researchers found that these mice had fat cells that were twice as big as normal ones. Instead of burning calories, their bodies were storing more of their energy as fat. This occurred even though these mice were still eating the same portions and exercising as much as they were before. "We call it fault-free obesity," Dr. Bennet said.

Now, researchers believe changing or suppressing the ankyrin-B mutation could prevent a common, unhealthful cascade which often leads to a serious condition. According to Prof. Lorenzo, "We quickly learned that the increased accumulation of lipids in fat cells 'spilled over' to the liver and muscles." This is similar to what’s seen in humans where an “abnormal accumulation of fat” as Dr. Lorenzo put it, leads “to inflammation and disruption of response to insulin, a hallmark of type 2 diabetes.”

If future research holds up, this gene could become a biomarker for those who are at-risk for body weight issues, and may help researchers develop gene therapies to get stubborn weight loss under control. These scientists estimate that today, 1.3% of white Americans and 8.4% of African Americans carry this genetic mutation. "The problem is, we still didn't know how this gene worked,” Dr. Bennett said. Next, he and colleagues plan to identify humans who carry this gene variant and find out how it affects their metabolism.

To see how one company is marrying genetic information with weight loss, click here:

Should you defend the free speech rights of neo-Nazis?

Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen discusses whether our society should always defend free speech rights, even for groups who would oppose such rights.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Former ACLU president Nadine Strossen understands that protecting free speech rights isn't always a straightforward proposition.
  • In this video, Strossen describes the reasoning behind why the ACLU defended the free speech rights of neo-Nazis in Skokie, Illinois, 1977.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Harness the Power of Calm

Tap into the "Rest and Digest" System to Achieve Your Goals

Big Think Edge
  • In the fast-paced workplaces and productivity-focused societies many of us inhabit today, it is easy to burnout.
  • Emma Seppälä, a Stanford researcher on human happiness, recommends tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system instead—"rest and digest"rather than "fight or flight."
  • Aiming for energy management rather than time management will give you the resilience you need to excel at the things that really matter in your life and career, rather than living "mostly off" by attempting to seem "always on."

Apple co-founder says we should all ditch Facebook — permanently

Steve Wozniak doesn't know if his phone is listening, but he's minimizing risks.

Photo by Bryan Steffy/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Steve Wozniak didn't hold back his feelings about the social media giant when stopped at an airport.
  • The Apple co-founder admitted that devices spying on his conversations is worrisome.
  • Wozniak deleted his Facebook account last year, recommending that "most people" should do the same.
Keep reading Show less

Where the evidence of fake news is really hiding

When it comes to sniffing out whether a source is credible or not, even journalists can sometimes take the wrong approach.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • We all think that we're competent consumers of news media, but the research shows that even journalists struggle with identifying fact from fiction.
  • When judging whether a piece of media is true or not, most of us focus too much on the source itself. Knowledge has a context, and it's important to look at that context when trying to validate a source.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less