1sunfight’s Weblog

January 25, 2009

Why Do Some People Never Seem to Get Fat?

Recently I came across this article on the BBC that explored the subject on some being able to remain thin while others cannot. The article asks the following question and then set to replicate a 1967 experiment conducted exploring the topic. The article caught my attention because I have always been one of the people they are talking about, the group who can remain thin regardless of how much I ate, what I ate, and the amount of activity I undertook or did not.

The question:

The science of weight gain is less straightforward than the headline seems to suggest. Why, for example, do some people seem to eat what they like and not put on weight, while others limit their diet yet struggle to shed their bulk?

The replicated experiment:

In 1967, a medical researcher, Ethan Sims, carried out on experiment at a Vermont state prison. He recruited inmates to eat as  much as they could to gain 25% of their body weight, in return for early release from prison.

Some of the volunteers could not reach the target however hard they tried, even though they were eating 10,000 calories a day. Sim’s conclusion was that for some, obesity is nearly impossible.

It was with this in mind that 10 slim volunteers – who were not dieters – convened in hospitable circumstances, for a recent experiment devised by the BBC’s Horizon documentary. The 10 spent four weeks gorging on as much pizza, chips, ice cream and chocolate as they could while doing no exercise, and severely limiting the amount they walked.

The volunteers had to eat double their usual amount of daily calories, which varied from 3,500 for the women to 5,000 for the men.

The outcome of the trial could bolster the theories of Dr. Rudy Leibel of Columbia University, New York, who believes we all have a biologically determined natural weight which our bodies make an effort to stick to, whether fat or thin.

Subjects were of both sexes.

The result:

One subject struggled with sticking to the no activity element of the experiment, another would eat the amount of prescribed calories, but would vomit, and two others simply could not eat that many calories.

After four weeks one person gained almost 7% of their body weight, another 9%, one a mere 1%, and another saw their body fat go down slightly.

The results highlight the different ways our bodies behave when faced with excess calories.

One expert, Professor Jane Wardle, believes there could be a genetic answer, through what’s known as the FTO gene. Adults have one variant of this gene weigh on average more than everybody else.

The professor believes the gene can influence appetite, leading some people to not know when they are full.

“It’s kind of effortless because they don’t even want to eat. They’re not having to exert willpower and self-control whereas for other people, their responses to foods that they’re exposed to aren’t being switched off effectively as a consequence of them having had enough.”

Dr. Leibel observes that for some people, such as those who couldn’t reach their calorie targets, the appetite hardly fluctuates regardless of how much they want, or are told, to eat.

BBC

My commentary:

I have blogged about this in the past, my weight, what I have been like in the past, and obesity. As someone who has spent my life either underweight, or slim, especially by current US standards, this is a subject that is of intense interest to me.

As a child I was the runt of the family, and quite underweight. My mother has told me that she had been asked if she was even feeding me, I was that underweight. As I got older and went through puberty, even into adulthood I remained underweight. I was runway model thin in spite of eating whatever I liked, including sweets, chocolate bars, and fast food. This made me an object of scorn by many who would make unsolicited mean comments about my weight, and appearance, including asking me if I were anorexic. I never had an eating disorder, I never intentionally starved myself, and never exercised excessively, that was just how I was. It was not until my mid-30’s when I found I could put on weight, but even then I did not get anywhere near being overweight.

At the age of 36 I quit smoking. After I quit smoking I rapidly put on seven pounds much to my surprise and delight. At that point I went on a weight gain regimen of eating no less than 3,000 calories a day over a period of about six months. At the time I did not keep a food diary, but I watched my daily calorie intake intensely. At the end of six months I put on 44 pounds, which was roughly 40% of my body weight at the time I quit smoking. For a period after that I kept the weight, until I went through an extremely active and stressful semester in college. I lost 20 pounds that was followed by more weight loss after two back to back severe colds that brought me near to the weight I was when I first quit smoking, although not quite. I was devastated. There were attempts afterward where I replicated my weight gain campaign that had been previously undertaken, but to no avail I did not regain the weight I had lost, with the exception of a few pounds. I resigned myself to being thin, though not underweight as previously.

Two years ago I took a job as a software consultant where there is little physical activity, unlike any job I had held previously. At first I experienced no weight gain, then after six months I began putting on weight. Within nine months I was back at the weight I had been at the end of my initial weight gain campaign after quitting smoking. Trust me, I could not be happier. In the nearly one year that has followed the weight gain I have maintained that weight, not gaining anymore weight, or losing weight, with the exception of going back and forth within a five pound range. I could not be happier. To see what I currently look like, please see the above photograph of me standing in front of Stonehenge taken in May of 2008. That is how I look now.

This past Christmas I went home to surprise my family, the only person in family who knew about my coming was brother, so when I stepped into my parent’s home after a five year absence, it was a total surprise including my appearance. Before I arrived my brother knew about my weight gain since we had a week long e-mail exchange about his dieting and my weight gain, so when he picked me up at the airport he knew what to expect. However, when I stepped into my parent’s house the visible change in my appearance was apparent. The second thing out of my father’s mouth was about my weight gain, he was pleased. During my visit my parent’s and I discussed my life long struggle with weight.

My mother who had started out life thin did not remain that way, though she is overweight she is not overweight by much, and my father who has never been overweight never was underweight at any point in his life. He has maintained a healthy weight all of his life. My brother started out life thin, then became overweight, but has lost the weight for a second time, and my sister never was a petite flower. Although I have thought of her as fat in the past, when I saw her at Christmas she struck me as thick, but not fat. For my parent’s it was a mystery as to how they could have produced me, who in their mind was an abnormality in the arena of weight. I stopped them dead in their tracks and walked them over the gallery where there is seven generations of my family hanging on the walls. Let’s look at these people, since we have pictures of both sides of the family dating back either a century or to back to nearly the Civil War. I was confident I would find a genetic link based on those photographs. Sure enough dating back to my mother’s mother and a few others from much earlier generations on that side of the family I found naturally thin people, the most recent was my great grandmother. There was a link after all. However, I did take into account that sweets were not available like they are now, and fast food did not exist like it does now.

My parent’s and I discussed our appetites and the amount of food we consume. My father and I eat until we are full, not stuffed, my mother has gotten that way late in life. Our discussion can be supported by the findings in the previously mentioned experiment. I do gravitate toward eating high calorie foods, but I am as equally attracted to healthy foods as well. I stop eating when I am full, and I do not over eat, not only do not consume a lot of food, the thought of over eating sickens me, and can walk away from a plate with too much food on it. My serving sizes are naturally smaller than what I see has become the norm.

My conclusion, I support the findings of the study and believe that there are people who are predisposed to being thin and overweight, though as in anything else, I believe there are exceptions to the rule given that there is an obesity epidemic on both sides of the pond, with studies done on the obesity epidemic in the US over the last twenty five years from the CDC to support that.

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