A new study finds that people who are at higher risk for developing obesity can still mitigate this risk via eating behaviors.
Strategies such as being mindful about what you eat, taking smaller servings and counting calories may even counteract some of the effects of obesity-related genes.
Over the past two decades, rates of obesity among American adults have risen from 31% in 2000 to 42% in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Source.
The modern environment we live in has often been blamed for this rise in obesity, with its easy access to cheap, high calorie food and barriers to regular physical activity.
But genetics can also increase a person’s risk of developing obesity. Some research estimates that genes account for 50% to 90% of people’s weight differences.
According to the authors of a new study, strategies such as mindful or intuitive eating, taking smaller servings, and counting calories may counteract some of the effects of obesity-related genetics.
However, this varies from study to study, which suggests that other factors can influence weight, including conscious changes in eating behaviors.
Mindful eating behaviors can reduce obesity risk
In the new study, published July 6 in the International Journal of Epidemiology, researchers examined data on over 3,700 adults in the United Kingdom who participated in two separate studies.
Participants’ weight and height were measured, and they provided a blood sample, which researchers used to calculate their genetic risk of obesity.
People also completed questionnaires that measured different eating behaviors, such as a tendency to engage in emotional eating or overeat due to hunger.
Researchers found that people with a higher genetic risk of obesity were more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI).
BMI is a measurement to assess whether someone has obesity, overweight or underweight. It does not always accurately assess body fat, especially for certain racial/ethnic or other groups.
However, the study results also showed that for people who scored higher for certain types of eating behaviors — called “cognitive restraint” — the link between genes and BMI was reduced.
This included both flexible strategies — such as mindful eating, portion control, and chopping vegetables in advance for easier snacking — and rigid strategies like calorie counting.
“What we discovered for the first time was that increasing both types of restraint — could potentially improve BMI in people genetically at risk; meaning that restraint-based interventions could be useful to target the problem,” study author Shahina Begum, a psychology PhD student from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, said in a news release.
What is mindful eating?
Mindful eating, often called “intuitive eating,” is about consciously paying attention to what you eat without judgment.
Much like practicing mindfulness, mindful eating occurs when you are present with your food and taking the time to savor each bite in the moment.
A 2017 study published in DiabetesSpectrum defines mindful eating as “an approach to food that focuses on individuals’ sensual awareness of the food and their experience of the food.”
Mindful Eating 101 — A Beginner’s Guide
Many factors contribute to weight gain
Dr. Supriya Rao, a gastroenterologist and obesity medicine specialist at Integrated Gastroenterology Consultants in Chelmsford, Mass., said the study reinforces what is already known — that exercising restraint when it comes to eating may help some people maintain a healthy weight.
However, “eating patterns have a multifactorial component to them — behavioral, emotional, psychological, cultural, etc.,” she said. “So it’s hard to just use one measure, such as [restraint], to ensure the maintenance of healthy weight.”
However, being mindful of what we eat — as well as when we are eating and why — may help us maintain a healthy weight, said Jennifer Sacheck, PhD, a professor of prevention and wellness in the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
It’s also important, she said, to pay attention to hormonal cues, such as those for hunger and a feeling of fullness.
Dr. Amy Lee, head of nutrition at Nucific, agrees that being more in tune with your body and aware of your eating behaviors can help you shift how you eat. But she admits this can still be difficult for some people.
Calorie counting and other restrictive behaviors may also be helpful for some people, said Sacheck. In particular, understanding the calorie content of foods can help people become aware of the hidden calories found in energy-dense snack foods, she said.
However, rigid strategies are not typically recommended for longer-term weight loss, she said.
In addition, “there is always a risk of getting carried away with some of these [rigid] strategies that may lead to disordered eating,” she said, “so it is important to not go to extreme measures.”
Endocrinologist Dr. Beverly Tchang, an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, and advisor for Ro, said “…given the prevalence of disordered eating among people with obesity, and vice versa, it’s important to be mindful of any weight management interventions that might be ‘triggering’ for the individual who might have a history of these habits.”
Tips for weight maintenance
While nutrition and physical activity are the foundation for all weight management strategies, Tchang said there are a variety of tools to choose from, such as food logging or mindful eating.
“What works for one person may not work for another,” she said. “So it’s important to find what feels comfortable and sustainable for you.”
Sacheck recommends starting with a balanced diet full of nutrient-dense foods, including a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and lean sources of proteins.
She also suggests planning your meals and snacks, and cooking and preparing your own food whenever possible. This can help you avoid gravitating to vending machines or fast food restaurants when hungry.
In addition, if certain cues “trigger” a desire to eat — such as driving by a coffee shop or being at your computer at certain times of day — try to change up those patterns, said Sacheck.
And get daily physical activity, she said, which plays an important role in weight maintenance.
In a new study on obesity, researchers examined data on over 3,700 adults in the United Kingdom.
In the study, the people with a higher genetic risk of obesity were likelier to have a higher BMI.
However, the researchers also found that for people who scored higher for certain types of eating behaviors — called “cognitive restraint” — the link between genes and BMI was reduced.