I seem to put on pounds more easily than other people, and everyone in my family has struggled with weight gain. Can I change my inherited “plump genes” without starving myself?
It is certainly true that weight problems run in families, so if your parents struggled with their weight, it’s no wonder that you’re worried. But genes are not destiny. By making certain diet and exercise changes, you can override them—at least to a degree.
Some genes are dictators. The genes for eye color or hair color, for example, issue strict orders. If they call for you to have blue eyes or brown hair, that’s it. But the genes for weight are different. They’re more like committees giving suggestions. You can negotiate, and sometimes even reject, what they have in mind for you.
Here’s an example: Genes can influence appetite, and some people have bigger appetites than others. But Barbara Rolls, a nutrition researcher at Penn State University, has found a gene that helps shut off appetite. It turns out that your body seeks a certain amount of food each day and judges the amount it needs by weight. That is, heavier foods—such as soup—will make you feel satisfied quicker than lightweight foods such as popcorn. You can use this fact to tame an overactive appetite.
In a 1999 experiment at Penn State, Rolls fed volunteers a casserole appetizer and then measured how much food they ate at a subsequent meal; it was about 400 calories. Then, on a separate day, she added water to the casserole, making soup. When she measured their food intake later that day, she found that the volunteers ate about 100 fewer calories than before. The weight of the added water simply flipped their appetite switches off faster.
Any food that is high in water content will do the same: fruits, chunky vegetables such as cucumbers or squash, and soymilk. To spot a good appetite-quenching food, read the package label. The number of calories per serving in the finished product should be fewer than the number of grams per serving. For example, one serving of canned black-eyed peas is 110 calories
for 130 grams—a good choice.
You can trick your appetite with fiber too. Every 14 grams of fiber you add to your daily routine causes you to eat about 10 percent fewer calories. Let’s say you get about 12 grams of fiber each day (that’s about one apple, 2 slices of whole grain bread and one serving of beans). Try ramping that up to 26 grams—not by eating more food but by making more of the food you eat high-fiber: beans, green vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Your appetite will tend to shut off at about 10 percent fewer calories than before. So if you eat about 2,000 calories every day and you increase your fiber, you’ll now feel full after 1,800 calories instead. Push up your fiber intake even more, and your appetite will turn off even faster.
One final point: Part of the reason that weight problems often run in families is that
activity patterns tend to run in families. If your parents were couch potatoes, you may find yourself with a bit of that tendency too. But if you break that pattern and include regular exercise in your routine, you’ll burn far more calories each day than you would if you were sedentary. Whatever genes you’ve inherited, combining the right diet and regular exercise can help. A vegetarian diet fits the bill because it’s naturally high in fiber and loaded with water-based vegetables and fruits that can satisfy even a very strong appetite.