There’s always something new and breaking on the weight loss front. Today it’s some new information on a gene that contributes to weight gain.

Recent experiments on mice have shown that breaking this gene increases fat formation in the body – and fixing it does the reverse. 

This is great news if you’re a genetically altered mouse. For the rest of us, applying these new details will take a bit more work.

Here’s a quick summary of everything you need to know about FTO and what this could mean:

The Genetics and History of Obesity

Human obesity and genetics have been studied for quite a while now – at least as long as obesity has been on our radar as a public health problem.

Historically, obesity has always existed within human populations. It has not become common however until recent decades as westernized countries have become lush with rich, high-energy processed foods. As you can see in the animation below, the United States has seen a sharp increase in obesity over the last 30 years. 

The connection from parent to child has long been established. In fact, obesity is very highly heritable – to the degree of about 70%. This means that if your parents are obese and you have 9 brothers and sisters, statistically only 3 of them will likely not become obese themselves. 

Other factors certainly factor into these figures. Eating habits for example are often passed down from parent to child. This alone may increase risk substantially. Emotional issues (which are genetically heritable on their own) may also be passed down to children as well, and over-eating result as a side effect. 

It still however ties back most prominently to genetics. The ways your body chooses to process food and store energy are most directly a result of your genetic code. While an abundance of energy-rich food and the inclination to over-eat may be the cause, the impact this has on you is directly influenced by your genetic makeup.

As gene sequencing has become more advanced, our understanding of what genes tend to promote various traits has grown substantially. For example, we have successfully identified one gene encoding that is tied to a 3x greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Weight gain outside the realm of specific diseases however, remains somewhat genetically mysterious in that it is a fairly complex trait with many influencing factors. As of 2006 there were over 70 potential genetic markers tied to obesity – but none of these potentials could be consistently proven. By 2015 we were up to 140 suspected markers. Many of these have been tied to behavioral or appetite triggers.

The Mousing Link

This brings us back to present day. A gene called FTO has been a major blip on the obesity radar since 2007 – but we hadn’t yet figured out how the connection applied. Thanks to a number of lab mice, we now know that FTO directly affects how the body decides to store energy. 

More specifically, a defect in this gene causes significantly more energy to be converted into fat rather than being burned as fuel. In effect – two otherwise identical subjects with identical habits would have significantly different levels of weight gain based entirely on this gene.

Intrigued by the implication, MIT scientists used DNA editing technology to switch on and off the gene in lab mice. Mice with the fully activated gene showed much higher metabolism rates and remained lean and fit regardless of diet.

According to Melina Claussnitzer, lead author of the study and visiting professor at MIT, “These mice were 50 percent thinner than the control mice, and they did not gain any weight on a high-fat diet. Instead they dissipated more energy, even in their sleep, suggesting a dramatic shift in their global metabolism.”

How It Works

There are several types of fat in the human body – brown fat, white fat, subcutaneous fat and visceral fat for example – and not all of them are harmful to your health.

Subcutaneous fat is found directly under your skin, while visceral fat is found deep within your body, surrounding vital organs. Subcutaneous fat is typically less harmful than visceral, though we aren’t particularly certain why. What we do know is that having more visceral fat has been linked to increased risk of insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease stroke and dementia.

Of more importance to our topic are brown and white fats – a differentiation that many people have never even heard of.

White fat is the more plentiful of the two. White fat has two jobs – first to store energy, and second to produce hormones that are passed into the bloodstream. A particularly important hormone produced by white fat cells is adiponectin. Also known as GBP-28 or AdipoQ, adiponectin is a protein hormone that plays a role in preventing Type 2 Diabetes among other things. Studies have shown however that in overweight people, production of this hormone is reduced.

Brown fat helps you stay warm, and actually burns white fat to produce energy. We have more of it as children than later in life, and there’s far less of it than white fat in general. Even in lean, healthy adults the ratio of white fat to brown fat is likely to be 100 to 1 by weight.  If properly stimulated, just 2 ounces of brown fat could burn up to 500 calories in a day. 

When your body decides to create new fat cells, the choice of brown or white depends largely on a pair of genes that control thermogenesis (energy burn) – and these genes are directly affected by the FTO gene which acts like a “master switch”. 

In essence, defective FTO genes cause your body to produce more white fat – while good ones cause your body to produce more brown fat.

Human Implications

The first thing to note is exactly how important the FTO gene is in the larger scheme of things. 

For starters, having an FTO gene glitch does not mean you are destined to become obese – but it could predispose you in that direction. European research also showed that overall 44% of people had the gene glitch – yet only 5% of the black population tested positive for it. Clearly there are many other factors involved.

That said, people who inherited two faulty copies of the gene (that is, from both parents) were found to weigh an average of 7lbs more than those without them. 

As you might expect, there are plenty of companies out there already racing to figure out ways to medicinally increase brown fat and decrease white fat. The first mass-produced pill to accomplish this feat will no doubt be worth billions – and this research provides a plausible path to victory.

There’s a major problem however: Gene therapy isn’t exactly mainstream. While it may be plausible to genetically select children with working FTO genes at conception, treating an adult to correct faulty FTO genes is still a concept that lives far out on the cutting edge of modern science.

Even when gene therapy reaches the point of creating a packageable FTO cure, it will only work effectively if combined with more traditional approaches.

At the end of the day, your best bet for losing weight is still going to involve eating right and exercising regularly.

Why Addressing Obesity Matters

This is a legitimate question. Only the other day, I was confronted by an otherwise seemingly intelligent person who saw no reason for concern over raising an obese child. It may seem like common sense, but here are some facts you should understand just in case.

  • 1 in 3 people in the United States is currently obese. 2 out of 3 are at least moderately overweight. Only that final third falls into the “healthy weight” category. 
  • Over 13 million children in the United States alone are obese. 
  • Obesity increases your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, asthma and gout – among other things.
  • 1 in 5 people will die of a weight-related disease or health complication. 

Obesity has become the leading killer of Americans. Think of it – we live in a country wherein the leading causes of death are not from a lack of food, but rather an overabundance of it. For a nation so intent on eradicating health risks like smoking, we’re all too happy to run gleefully head-on into a national obesity epidemic.

That said, most of us have a choice in the matter. While it’s true that specific diseases or genetic mutations may cause obesity in individuals, most of us have nothing to blame but our habits. 

Don’t let your habits make you a statistic.

There’s never been a better time to get in shape, improve your health and improve your life!