Does DNA = destiny?

Just before the holidays, I received an email from my insurance company promoting discounts on various wellness products. One in particular caught my eye – genetic composition testing designed to “optimize your daily nutrition and exercise routine to help meet your fitness and health goals.” I had heard about this type of genetic testing and was interested in learning more. The timing was perfect as I had been wanting to shake up my exercise regimen, having fallen into a comfortable rut over the last year or so. I decided to take the plunge not only to learn more about my own disposition, but to be able to share my experience here in case any of you have been thinking about exploring this type of genetic testing.

I want to preface this all with a note about genetic testing – I know there is still quite a bit of controversy about direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Many people have concerns about privacy and what these companies do with the data they compile. I’m not here to debate the ethics of genetic testing, but I do recommend that anyone thinking about getting tested do their due diligence and read through the privacy information provided by the vendor. Call me naïve, but I choose to trust that my data won’t be misused by the vendor that I selected. I may be wrong, but I will cross that bridge if/when I come to it.

That being said, I ordered the test kit online and received it in the mail within a week or so. The test consisted of a few simple swabs of my cheeks. The company provided a pre-paid envelope to return the swabs. I sent them off and eagerly awaited the results. Within two weeks I received an email with a link to access the report online in a downloadable PDF format. About two weeks later, I received the printed report via snail mail, which is really nice as I did not want to print out the 40-page document myself (it is nicely done with full color graphics, but they would totally suck up my printer ink).

The letter in the front of the report reminded me that several factors impact health and fitness, including genes, environmental influences and lifestyle choices. Most studies have shown that genetics contribute between 30-40% to the body’s response to food and exercise. There was also a pretty standard disclaimer that the information in the report should not be used as a diagnostic tool and should not replace proper medical care from your healthcare provider. Instead, the vendor recommended using the report as a “guide to identify and implement actions to assist in taking control of my health and fitness.” And honestly, that is what I plan to do. I have taken some time to digest the information and I am working on a plan to determine how to use this information to inform my eating and exercise habits. I thought I would share some of what I learned and how I intend to incorporate the information into my wellness plan.

I have to admit that I was impressed with the amount of information included in the report and I thought it was presented in a simple, easy to read format. There is a Summary of Results page in the front followed by more detailed sections for each category tested. There are color charts, tables and graphics for those who are more visual learners. The nutrition information was presented first, followed by the exercise recommendations. For each category, the report includes information about what genes were tested and how they impact your body. Below are some highlights from my report and my thoughts on how I’ll use the information:

Body Weight and Weight Regain

Two of the most interesting pieces of information for me were related to body weight and weight regain and unfortunately for me, the news was not so good. I am apparently at high risk for both obesity and regaining weight after dieting. This news was not a total surprise as I have struggled since adolescence to maintain a healthy weight. I have definitely experienced the common yo-yo dieting phenomenon, going through phases of losing and regaining weight since high school. I definitely feel like my predisposition is to be on the heavier side. When I look at family photos, there are several obese relatives throughout the generations (think stereotypical fat, Italian grandmothers).

Satiety and Impulsive Eating

I also learned that I am predisposed to impaired satiety, meaning I tend to overeat because I may not sense fullness until I have already eaten more than enough. Again, not surprising to me as I have always been a fast eater. My dad is a very fast eater whereas my mom could compete for slowest eater on earth. I’m guessing I got my dad’s genes here. The good news is I am less likely to eat impulsively as I do not have lower dopamine sensitivity, i.e., I receive enough “reward” from eating tasty foods that I don’t have to overindulge to be satisfied.

The above results pertaining to obesity, weight regain and impaired satiety could cause some people to throw up their hands and give up trying to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. For me, it just heightens my awareness that I may have to work a little harder than others to do so. I learned a long time ago that I was never going to look like a super model – and I’m cool with that. I also abandoned traditional dieting several years ago, after realizing that it was not a sustainable approach to weight management. These days, I am much more focused on a mindful eating approach and listening to my body when it comes to food and eating habits. I believe this will help tremendously with the impaired satiety issue – I have learned that I need to slow down when I eat, so that I can tune into the signals from my body as I begin to feel full. For years, the speed at which I ate led to a consistent pattern of overeating and feeling uncomfortably full after most meals. I have been working on that for the past few years and these test results have increased my resolve to continue doing so.

Inflammation

The news was also not great when it comes to my body’s inflammatory response. I am apparently at high risk for chronic inflammation, which has been linked to several preventable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. It indicated that I was also more prone to the inflammatory effects of a diet high in sugar, refined carbs and vegetable oils. As someone who grew up on pasta and has battled a major sweet tooth her whole life, I can see some validity in this result. The good news is that there are foods I can eat that have an anti-inflammatory effect, as I discussed in a previous blog post about an anti-inflammatory diet. My family and I had already started making some changes to our diet after I attended that seminar, but I know that there is more work to be done – and I am willing to do it.

Exercise and Fitness

As I mentioned earlier, I was more interested in the results related to exercise and fitness and what I learned was pretty fascinating. Apparently, I have the capability to excel in both power and endurance activities, i.e., a mix of sprinting and distance events. My whole life I have always struggled with activities requiring short bursts of energy. For example, I have always disliked sports like tennis and basketball because I was too lazy to run back and forth. I also tried sprinting when I was on the track team in high school but fared much better as a middle-distance runner. I just thought I didn’t have it in me, but I am rethinking that mindset with this new knowledge. Perhaps I just never had the proper training to build up the capacity for power activities. I may give it a try and still find out that I don’t like those activities, but at least I won’t count myself out without first giving them a chance.

Two other results that kind of go hand in hand relate to the best type of exercise for fat loss and the tendency for muscle soreness. Not too surprisingly, the results indicated that I need a combination of strength/resistance and cardio exercise for the most effective fat loss. Many fitness experts promote this combined approach for anyone looking to lose weight and/or improve their fitness level. However, I apparently have the tendency to deposit fat under the skin rather than in the muscle and to lose weight, I would benefit from an approach such as high intensity interval training (HIIT). Interval training generally consists of a warm up period, then several repetitions of high-intensity exercise separated by medium intensity exercise for recovery, then a cool down period. The recommendations in my report advised against training only on pure cardio or endurance activities only…which is something I admit I’ve been doing for the last few years. Oops. Guess it is time to mix things up a bit.

Perhaps the reason I tend to avoid strength training or resistance activities (such as lifting weights, doing push-ups, etc.) is the association with DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness. You know – that achy feeling you get a day or two after engaging in muscle-building activities. My genes leave me more likely to experience this soreness according to my report. I’ll admit I have kind of a love-hate relationship with muscle soreness. On one hand, it usually makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something in my workout, but it can make me wimp out and not want to continue training. The good news is there are several strategies to help minimize the soreness, including rest days, stretching, and the occasional over the counter pain relievers if needed. Being aware that I may experience muscle soreness more than the average person will help me prepare for it and adopt ways to minimize the aches.

So what’s the verdict?

Bottom line, I am glad that I did the test. I think the information is one tool of many that can help inform my approach to health and fitness. I know that it is not the end all, be all and I don’t believe that my DNA is my destiny. But in my case, I learned some things that are making me rethink some preconceived notions I have had, especially about my physical abilities. I realize that I may give another go at tennis and still not like it or be good at it, but at least I am willing to try.

Note: I purposely am not sharing the name of the vendor I used for the genetic testing as I don’t want it to be seen as an endorsement of one company over another (especially since I only tried one vendor). If you would like this information, you can email me at Janice@everbetterihc.com and I will gladly share the information offline.

Nutrition – Part 2 – How to Eat

In the last post about nutrition, I discussed some of the general recommendations around what kinds of foods to eat to promote or maintain good health. Today we are going to look at the topic of nutrition from another angle, one that I believe is equally as important – how to eat to maintain a healthy weight and stay healthy.

Weight loss/weight management is a heavily debated topic, and one that is also very popular based on the number of books, websites, and programs that exist to help individuals on this journey. Again, my goal with this post is to provide general guidelines that are supported by sound research that can help if you are struggling to maintain a healthy weight. As some of the latest science has revealed, there are several surprising factors that play into whether someone can lose weight and keep it off. There is no “one size fits all” approach and what works for one person may not work for someone else. The researchers also concluded that it can take multiple tries to figure out what works for you. My hope is that you’ll find one or two solid strategies that fit your needs and lead to success.

 The Dieting Paradox

 It is probably no longer a shocking fact to hear that 71% of American adults are overweight. A 2017 study found that obesity now drives more early preventable deaths in the U.S. than smoking. This has fueled a weight-loss industry worth $66.3 billion, selling everything from diet pills to meal plans to fancy gym memberships. And yet more and more research is demonstrating that traditional dieting, such as cutting calories or restricting certain kinds of foods, DOES NOT WORK.

There is a body of research dating back to World War II around dieting and the ensuing cycle of losing weight and regaining weight (sometimes more than was lost). The impact of this “yo-yo dieting” is to ratchet up the baseline weight even higher, beyond the individual’s original weight. Researchers at UCLA conducted a meta-analysis of 31 long-term studies on the effectiveness of dieting. They concluded that dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain – up to 2/3rds of people regained more weight than they lost. So yes, dieting can actually put you at risk of gaining weight. Let that sink in for a minute.

There are neurological, hormonal and metabolic changes that occur when you engage in dieting behaviors and/or lose weight. For example, your metabolism slows down when you lose weight, but researchers have found that if you gain some or all of that weight back, your metabolism does not increase accordingly. So, the bottom line is, unfortunately, that biology is working against you when you diet.

A mindful approach – changing your relationship with food

So, what is the good news, you ask? There is another way! It is a slower, but more sustainable approach to weight management. You’ve probably heard the advice that in order to be successful at losing weight and keeping it off, you can’t succeed with short-term fixes – you have to make lifestyle changes that are sustainable over time. This is solid advice and the basis for what many have now coined “mindful eating.” This approach is not about making external changes such as restricting calories, but rather adopting an inner-oriented process where you tune into your mind and body for cues about hunger and eating.

Changing eating behavior is difficult because it is an automatic behavior that we’ve been doing for decades. How many of you have experienced eating on “autopilot” – when you intend to just have a handful of chips and next thing you know, the bag is empty? And you can’t remember eating them all? Mindful eating is about disengaging this autopilot and bringing awareness and intention to the act of eating. It takes time and practice to be mindful, but by learning to tune into your body, noticing hunger and fullness signals and the way food really tastes, you can radically change your experience of eating.

Some helpful tips, tools and resources

 As you have probably figured out, mindful eating is rooted in the practice of mindfulness. I touched upon mindfulness in my post highlighting the various areas of the Wheel of Health, and we will explore it further in a future post. Mindfulness is about paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and without judgment. Building a mindfulness practice in general will help you eat more mindfully. For now, we will focus on some basic strategies you can explore and adopt to help move you along your path to mindful eating.

  • Be present at meals – stop and focus on eating when you eat. Turn off the TV, put down the newspaper, book or phone, sit down at the table. Slowing down and being present while eating can prevent overeating, eating unhealthy foods, and help you tune into your body’s hunger and fullness signals. This may be a challenge if you are used to eating on the run or multitasking while you eat. If so, start small – try it for one meal and notice how it feels when you give yourself permission to simply be present and eat.

 

  • Stop judging – judgment plays a powerful role for people trying to change their eating habits and/or lose weight. We often turn a simple fact (“I ate the whole pint of ice cream in one sitting!”) into a condemnation of ourselves (“I have no willpower and will never lose weight”).  Being mindful can help break through this “all or nothing” thinking and the failure-shame-avoidance spiral that is common in weight loss (“I pigged out at the buffet. I have no willpower – it’s useless, I’ll never be able to lose weight so I might as well quit trying.”)  Rest assured, this is not about letting yourself off the hook or making excuses for less than optimal choices. As you increase awareness and cease to judge, you will learn to shift course before or while engaging in the unhealthy choice or habit; it actually allows for accountability.

 

  • Be kind to yourself – compassion will get you further than punishment. Think about a baby learning to walk. He is bound to stumble and fall, but do his parents judge or criticize him and tell him he’ll never learn to walk? No, they respond with love and encouragement to keep trying. We need to do the same for ourselves. This can be difficult as our society tends to favor finding the problem and focusing on what needs fixing. This works sometimes but not always. We also find it easier to treat others with compassion but not ourselves. If you had a friend struggling to lose weight and she shared her difficulties and setbacks, you most likely would empathize and encourage her to keep working toward her goal. Why not extend that same kindness to yourself?

If all of this seems a bit overwhelming, it may help to start by trying a simple tool that you can use anytime, anywhere. It is called the Hunger-Fullness Scale and it helps you tune into your body’s natural signals around the need to eat or stop eating. Here is one example that you can use.

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Sample Hunger-Fullness Scale

Before you eat, pause for a moment to assess where you are on the scale in terms of hunger or fullness. The recommendation is to eat when you are moderately hungry (around a 2-2.5 on the scale) and to stop eating at the first sign or signal of moderate fullness (around a 5-5.5). As you may be aware, it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal to your brain that you are full or starting to get full. Thus, slowing your pace of eating can also help you tune into signals of fullness, as will using this scale after you begin eating and when you finish your meal.

If you are interested in learning more about mindful eating, there are a number of excellent resources available on the topic. Two of my favorite books are “The Mindful Diet” by Ruth Q. Wolever and Beth Reardon and “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life” by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung. In addition, there is an excellent website called The Center for Mindful Eating.

Learning to eat mindfully is a process and a journey, but I believe you will find it is worth the effort. Start small, explore and see what works best for you – one bite at a time.