Contrary to popular belief, obesity is rarely caused by our genes. According to the Harvard Public School of Health (HPSH), the genetic factors linked to obesity comprise only a small part of the overall risk. Moreover, sometimes even people who carry genes associated with obesity don't become overweight. That's because for most people who are obese, their high weight is caused by lifestyle factors that may be changed slowly, through personal motivation and support from family and friends.

Genetic Rarities

HPSH reports that researchers have identified certain rare instances where obesity seems to be caused by genetic mutations. One such rare form of obesity, called "monogenetic obesity," appears to be caused by spontaneous mutations in single genes that are involved in appetite control and food intake. Certain genetic syndromes are also linked to obesity, including Prader-Willi and Bardet-Biedl syndromes.

Another condition known as "common obesity" may also have a genetic link, based on evidence from animal models and twin studies. According to HPSH, this form of obesity is believed to be affected by multiple genes rather than a single gene. Common obesity may help explain why some people tend to carry more body fat than others. But it's not the whole story--lifestyle factors are also important.

Taking Control

Fortunately, HPSC assures us that when it comes to obesity, your heredity rarely determines your weight destiny. While some people may be genetically predisposed to obesity, making healthy changes in your diet, lifestyle, and environment may counteract a genetic predisposition.

There are several small lifestyle changes that may help to prevent obesity, in yourself and in your family. Take the first step toward reducing your risk by:

  • Walking regularly. You may help keep your weight under control simply by walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), a 150-pound person burns 240 calories per hour by walking. Worried about the time commitment? Relax--you can break the 30 minutes into shorter sessions. Try walking for ten minutes in the morning before work and ten minutes during your lunch break. Then, try finishing your day with a ten-minute stroll after dinner.
  • Following dietary guidelines from ChooseMyPlate.gov. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a website called ChooseMyPlate.gov that offers guidance and education on healthy eating, nutrition, and diet. Keep it simple by sticking to the advice on the site if you feel uncertain about how to control your weight through diet. You may need to work toward increasing your intake of healthier foods. The MyPlate food guide recommends that you fill at least half your plate with fruits and veggies at each meal.
  • Learn to manage stress. Many studies suggest a link between stress and obesity. A review of 14 studies published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found a strong link between increased stress and unhealthy eating habits, along with higher body weight. Handling stress isn't always easy, but you can take small steps to feel more relaxed, such as by spending time with family and friends. Moreover, you might be amazed at how much better you feel when you get a proper night's sleep.

HealthAhead Hint: Know the Facts

The good news is that obesity is rarely genetic: It's a condition that can usually be managed with lifestyle changes. Even when a genetic predisposition to obesity exists, HSPH notes that leading a healthy lifestyle may be the best way to counteract gene-related risks. The downside? If you are overweight or obese--or if you are at a high risk for obesity--it may be time to make some small changes in your eating and exercise habits.

Change can be intimidating--especially if you've tried to lose weight in the past. Instead of aiming for a total lifestyle overhaul, try focusing on a few small modifications you can make in your day-to-day life. Not sure where to start? Try walking, cutting back on sweet beverages like juice, and making an effort to get a better night's sleep. You may find that small changes like these make a big difference when it comes to managing your weight.