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Is a Child’s Weight Genetic?

Published in Pediatrics, Weight Management, For the Health of It Author: Andrew Maloney,MD

Your genetics may predispose your children to weight gain. However, genetics are not the sole determinant of weight. By making educated choices, you have the power to shape your family’s weight journey.

Do genes affect weight?

Geneticists have found many genes that can contribute to excess weight gain. However, these genes must encounter environmental conditions to activate. Consider this: you may have a genetic predisposition to be a good athlete, but unless you train and work out, you may never realize your athletic potential. Likewise, people with an obesity gene may be more likely to gain weight under certain circumstances. But, then again, they may not develop weight issues at all.

Obesity genes may:

  • Encourage overeating
  • Remove the feeling of fullness
  • Diminish control over how much is eaten
  • Factor into how body fat is stored

There are several specific genetic syndromes that cause obesity, but these are rare and have significant other characteristics that assist us in diagnosing them. Study of these syndromes has helped us to identify genes, hormones and potential treatments for excess weight gain.

How can I prevent my children from being overweight?

Even with a genetic predisposition to carry extra weight, you can influence the narrative — but be mindful of what you can and cannot control. It’s cold in Minnesota so it’s hard to be active in winter. You can’t change that, but you can change what’s in your control to improve quality of life and health.

Here are some things within our control:

  • Regular physical activity: It may be difficult to exercise during the winter, but you have options. Use what you can find for movement. Find a gym for your family or help your children find a sport, hobby or activity that they enjoy. Or dress them appropriately so they can be active outside during all types of weather. Reduce their availability to screen time by setting limits and setting up times to be physically active.
  • Eating pattern modification: Highly processed, high carbohydrate food is good tasting, readily available and very cheap. We can’t change that, but we can figure out a way to have more fruits and vegetables available at every meal or snack. I often talk to families about meal structure. There’s a time that we eat and there’s a time that we don’t eat. And so, whether it’s three, four or five meals a day, we focus on eating then but not during the hours in between.

One tool we teach parents to help with meal structure is the Division of Responsibility with Feeding. Parents get to decide what kids eat, when they eat and where they eat. Kids get to decide if and how much they eat of the food that is offered.

Another idea is to build into your schedule the times when you offer special treats. You can serve birthday cake, but it only makes sense if someone is celebrating a birthday. Or you can have ice cream every other Wednesday or offer candy on Halloween. By doing this, you reduce cravings and encourage eating in moderation because you know these foods will be available again.

  • Consistent routine: Set daily routines for family meals, homework time or sleep schedules. Routines can be challenging, but when you consistently work at it every day, it gets easier, and it becomes a habit. A routine doesn’t have to keep you from doing other things, but it does provide some structure that you can build upon, even when family schedules change, like when a new school year is starting. At times, you might have to adapt to make the structure work. For example, you may not be home for a mealtime. Arrange to offer your children the planned meal or snack at the normal time. You may also consider calling them to keep the social aspect of eating or have another family member stop over during that time.

If an activity, eating pattern or structure doesn’t work, it’s not a failure but an opportunity. Think along the lines of, “Did we choose the wrong activity?” If so, what can you do instead? Or does the activity cause pain? If so, let’s try to figure out what’s causing the pain. I find that if you put the pieces together and view the process as a journey that it’s more helpful than focusing on weight.

How can I help my children with their weight?

As parents, we worry about our children and their future. We may want them to take a different path than us when it comes to jobs, relationships or even our health, especially if we start seeing them experience some of our own issues, such as diabetes or sleep apnea.

But remember, your genetic makeup might set the stage, but genetics is only one piece of the puzzle. Focus on the things that you can change and know they can create a ripple effect. A small change could affect the lifespan of your 5-year-old and, in turn, impact the life of your grandchildren 60 years from now. One habit, one intervention with an individual can affect generations. All you have to do is start now.

If you feel like you need help in getting started, reach out to the team at CentraCare Weight Management. They understand the complexity of obesity and have multiple options available to help your child reach optimal health. Virtual visits are available.