Weight loss: Good luck or good genes?

RightFood4U Blog Good Luck or Bad Genes - Nutrition Programmes - Bray Wicklow Dublin
Ilona Madden - RightFood4U - Nutrition Programmes - Bray Wicklow Dublin

Written by Ilona Madden

March 18, 2018

updated 4 Dec 2023

“You are so lucky – you don’t put on weight!” – Is it just luck or good genes that some people don’t easily put on weight?

To be honest, I find it quite annoying when people say to me “You are so lucky – you don’t put on weight!”, “You must have really good genes that you don’t put on weight!” or “You must have a really fast metabolism” (Some people say I am an ectomorph body type and that is the reason why I don’t put on weight).

To me, it is the same in reverse, when people say: “I can’t lose weight because I have a slow metabolism” or “I can’t lose weight because I have a thyroid issue”, or “It’s in our family, we are all carrying excess weight or we are all big boned”.

What if I told you that you too can speed up your metabolism?

What if I told you that I haven’t gained weight despite my very underactive thyroid condition which I have been living with for the last 20 years?

What if I told you that both my mother and my grand-mother were really slim all their lives but suddenly  gained weight in their 40’s without changing anything in their diet? And that all my cousins, aunts and grand-mother on my father’s side have been struggling with weight all their lives?

First of all let’s look at GENES:

Epigenetics is a relatively new science which studies gene expression. The basic lesson is that just because you have certain genes that pre-dispose you to a condition or a disease, does not mean that you are getting that disease. You’re genes need to be switched on or off, and you can influence that switch with the right life-style and nutrition. So, if for example you have a gene that makes you less tolerant to carbohydrates or more prone to insulin resistance, it just means you need to be more cautious when eating carbohydrates than other people.

We do not have influence over all genes though. For example, a lot of black women have a gene that pre-disposes them of extreme fat deposits on their bums, something you rarely see in white women. Some women have bigger hips and carry a lot of fat on their thighs. Some women have bigger boops than others. All those things are genetic and there is very little you can do with diet.

There are certain body types based on your bone structure and some women will simply never be skinny, but it doesn’t mean they need to be overweight. Using body types can be helpful to show some girls or women that they have a certain shape that will not change regardless of what they eat or how much they exercise, but it is too simplistic to just put people into categories and say if you are this type you won’t put on weight.

Regardless of what body type you are, all types can gain weight, especially around the middle – the visceral fat, which is the one that poses a health issue! My mother and grand-mother (and apparently my great-grandmother too) were very slim and the same body type as I am until they hit menopause, and then gradually kept putting on more and more weight without changes in diet, quite the opposite, they were eating less.

So, if the body type theory was true, they would never have put on weight.

So, now lets look at Metabolism:

You can either just accept that someone has a slow metabolism and take it as a given and something that cannot be changed, or you can look at WHY someone’s metabolism might be slow.

For example, it has been shown that women after the menopause tend to put on weight. You could either say 1. “This is because their metabolism slows down after menopause” or you could look at it on a deeper level and say 2. “The estrogen level drops in women after menopause. And estrogen is a hormone which influences other hormones that are involved in fat storage rather than fat release”.

As a Nutritional Therapist, with explanation 1, there is not much I can do, however with explanation 2, there is a lot of things I could possibly address. I could add in foods that are rich in phyto-estrogens, I could support the liver to make sure hormones are cleared out of the system better, etc etc. (It would lead too far in this blog to go into all the details).

I can also look at metabolism itself. What is it anyway? A fast metabolism means that the cells turn everything around very quick and it means that they have a lot of energy. Where does the energy in the cell come from? It’s from mitochondria and ATP. Again, I don’t want to go into all the detail of biochemistry, but basically these are little power houses and you can look at them like these toys that can be wound up. It sort of means that the more you move, the more energy you produce – but only if you also give them the right nutrients. There are certain types of exercises, mainly HIIT (High Intensitiy Interval Training) which really boosts metabolism. It really winds up those mitochondria! Have you ever felt a real buzz after exercising, and rather than feeling tired after a tough workout, you feel highly energised? That’s what’s going on there. Of course, hormones also play a role.

But basically by leading an active lifestyle and eating good quality foods you can increase your metabolism.

What exactly is the right food and right lifestyle for YOU can be very personal and individual. Myself or other Nutritional Therapists can help you there by asking the right questions and looking at your health history.

I haven’t found a research paper, but from what I have seen in the weight-loss clinic in the last couple of years is, that it seems, that people who have once carried a lot of excess weight will always be more prone to gaining weight again. And, I guess, this could be a mental attitude or it could have something to do with their cells. Sort of that these cells were somehow damaged in the process when they were overweight and have now become more sensitive to hanging on to the fat. But I believe that by giving the body the correct nutrients, especially also including good fats (which a lot of people who are watching their weight often don’t), you can give your cells a good chance to heal and function better the way they are designed to. On the other hand, we are designed for periods of starvation and periods of plenty of food, so gaining and losing weight was quite normal for our ancestors.. But again, they would have eaten food that was designed for the bodies and not the highly processed foods that are around today.

Whatever the reason, I completely accept that some people gain weight more easily than others, and if that is you, you need to be extra vigilant. But you should not starve yourself, and certainly you should not eat low-fat highly processed foods.

So, what have I been doing?

When I was in my late teens/early twenties, I suddenly put on a lot of weight, because I left home and I started eating junk food. At the time, people were not as PC as they are now, and my friends told me to my face, that I am becoming fat. And so did my beloved father, and that was just too much for me. It took me a long time to loose that weight and a lot of struggle. I actually, just recently discovered my diaries from back then, including my food diary and calorie counting (before APPs!). I know at this stage, I swore to myself, that I will never ever want to go through dieting again. I love my food way too much than having to give it up! So, for the next number of years, every time, I noticed I was up a kg, I just starved myself for a day or two.

This worked perfectly, until I was in my early forties, when suddenly the weight wasn’t moving anymore. I panicked. I took up running which kept the weight a bit in check. But then my weight crept up again, because I think I was getting more and more hungry. That’s when I discovered more about nutrition. I was at a talk, I had an appointment with a Nutritional Therapist and I joined a Crossfit Gym where they did a Paleo Challenge. And for the first time in years, I managed to lose weight again, while actually eating more than I had ever  been eating before. I kept that weight off until last summer when my father died, and when for a couple of months, I was eating a lot of rubbish. But I’m back on track now and I’m actually happier with that little bit extra weight.

I cross-fit 3 x a week whenever I am around, and I am a firm believer that the metabolic condidtioning of the workouts and the weights increase my metabolism, so that I can eat as much as I do. But on the days, I’m not in the gym, I also move all the time. I take my dogs out for 2-3 walks a day, I play golf, I move whenever possible. I just can’t sit still.

I still eat mainly a Paleo diet, with very little grains and very little dairy products.My breakfast is generally fruit and nuts and seeds, sometimes I’d have overnight oats or buckwheat. Sometimes, I’d have a green smoothie or an omelette. Usually, this would keep me full until lunch time. But when I work-out or sometimes if I have a stressful morning, I might need a snack, which can be a protein ball, some nuts, a smoothie or piece of fruit.

Lunch is usually a salad with mixed green leaves, grated carrot, beetroot, courgette, tomatoes, peppers, maybe some hummus and some protein such as grilled chicken, a turkey or beef burger, or slice of grilled salmon. Often there’s also half an avocado on the plate. I use a good quality extra virgin olive oil quite liberaly and also some apple cidre vinegar and a bit of home-made pesto.

For dinner, again I’d have some good quality meat, poulty and fish and usually half or 3/4 of my plates are vegetables, and a good variety of all colours of vegetables. I love stir-frys or soups as well. Eating out, I’d do the same, I stay away from mashed potato and pasta. If I feel like having a dessert, I’ll have one, but usually with a starter and main-course I am full. I know that it is pure addiction, if my body wants a dessert and I make a conscious decision whether it’s worth it or not.

I try to leave a 12 hour gap between my last meal of the day and breakfast the next morning – sort of intermittent fasting to give my body a break.

My taste buds have changed over the years. A few years ago, I would have said “life’s not worth living without a delicious bread and I would have said that I can never give up bread and pasta. But it’s easier than you think. You just need to take the plunge. START!

Start with a challenge where you eliminate all processed foods and sugars for 4 weeks OR take it easy and eliminate one food per week. But do start! It’s so worth it!

I do put in some effort into cooking, butalso into educating myself about food and reading labels. I’m not obsessed with food and healthy eating. I actually really love my food and love eating well. Food tastes so much better since I’ve eliminated the processed foods actually.

It’s not just luck or good genes, it does take some effort and some dicipline. And I know it would be so much easier for you if it was just pure luck and my good genes and if you were just the “unlucky” one.

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