Why is it so hard to lose weight?

Why is it so hard to lose weight?

So you’ve started a new exercise regimen or embraced some trendy diet to try shedding some pounds. Yet when you step on the scale, your weight hasn’t budged.

Don’t blame yourself. Blame Darwin, or more precisely, blame evolution.

A recent Duke University study published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution describes new evidence about our tendency to hold onto our fat cells. Unlike other primates, the clustering of certain sections of our DNA prevents us from effectively switching on and off genes that help us convert our fat cells (specifically our white fat cells) into usable energy. And for most of our evolution, that’s been a good thing.

“Clearly the language of our DNA has spoken and allowed us to survive famines and peril to bring us to today,” reports Dr. Allen T. Mikhail, a bariatric surgeon at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill. and Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill. “Although we don’t appreciate our white fat cells now, without the capacity to store energy in the form of fat we would have likely been unable to survive millions of years.”

It means some of the extra padding we carry make us – in the words of Devi Swain-Lenz, a postdoctoral associate who worked on the Duke study – “the fat primates.”

In contrast, the biology of other primates gives them better access to the segments of their DNA that allow them to switch between storing fat and consuming it. As a result, these primates have body fat percentages that average around 9%, while ours weigh in between 14 and 31%.

But it’s not all bad news. During the millions of years since we parted ways with the chimps on the evolutionary roadmap, our brains have grown three times as big while those of our primate cousins haven’t grown at all.

“It’s unclear why our DNA is packaged this way. But finding a way to turn the gene on or off either from leptin (a hormone that affects hunger), consistent movement, exposure to cold temperatures or other means is the interesting question,” Dr. Mikhail says.

“Now in the land of plenty,” he says, “it does not make sense for our bodies to store energy in this way.” He also notes that the ability to convert fat cells into heat would be “most beneficial for our obese society.”

In the meantime, there are other options.

We can convert fat to energy through movement or a consistent exercise program. Yet exercise alone doesn’t work for everyone

“This study moves us closer to understanding the complex mechanism of obesity in humans. But there is not one cause for obesity, nor is there only one solution,” Dr. Mikhail says.

“The science and study of obesity continues to improve and we continue to learn more about our bodies and the causes of obesity,” he says.

As for fad diets or exercise trends, Dr. Mikhail has one thing to say: “Do not be deceived.”

And despite periodic bouts of wishful thinking, that’s something most of us realize. After all, we may be the primate that’s predisposed to store fat instead of burning it, but we’re also the smart ones.

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  1. June R. Emrich August 6, 2019 at 1:41 pm · Reply

    What do think of Dr. Grundy and the Leaky Gut that he talks about. Is there any truth to this. Do humans have Leaky Guts?

  2. Interesting question, June. I’d be interested in hearing more, too. Dr. Grundy also talks of the evils of lechtins in many plant-based diets. Any thoughts on this?

  3. Interesting article, I’ve noticed it doesn’t mention anything about the hormone insulin. If the hormone is present in your bloodstream you physical cannot burn fat, you will store it. It’s important that we ask the questions about where this data came from, where the money came from for the research and finally which industry helped create and pay for the schooling of those trained. Sugar, carbs and over eating protein (the liver will convert the excess protein into sugar) will all spike your insulin. You will notice that over-night when you aren’t eating the body will switch in to ketosis, a fat burning mode. We eat break’fast’ to curb the hunger pain and start sugar burning process. I would encourage people to do their own research on how to burn fat. Be cognisant of the data you read and where it comes from. Sugar is the easiest form of energy for us to burn. However you can switch your body over to produce ketones, which will burn the stored fat in your body.

  4. Thank you Cory for your interest in this article. The sequencing of the DNA came from the NIH funded Human Genome Project and the Duke University Study was simply an observational study not privately funded by industry. Although your statement is true that at certain levels of insulin your body will not burn fat, it is unrelated to the current study that is presented. Obesity is a complex disease and like any disease like cardiac, cancer and diabetes there is not one solution. Also patients are not expected to treat the disease on their own. The advise you give may work for some individuals but obesity is not just a “lifestyle choice” there are many underlying factors that take time to investigate and adopt a treatment plan accordingly. I think that is one of the important reasons to have a relationship with your physician and seek a weight loss expert if indicated. Thanks for your interaction on the online community.

About the Author

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Phil Andres

Phil Andres, health enews contributor, is a copywriter for Advocate Aurora Health in Downers Grove. He’s also a classically trained chef, former trivia monkey and one of two males in a family of five (if you count the dog).