Heart Disease, Diabetes, Body Weight and Genetics

Article by Dr. Paul Kennedy
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Doctor Paul KennedyWe have known for years (decades really) that individuals that are overweight or obese are far more likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes than those that are leaner or “skinny”. Clearly, there is much truth to that statement but some new genetic research has identified a gene known as IRS1 that is linked not only to having less body fat but, in addition, is linked to higher risk of heart

disease and greater chances of acquiring diabetes (Type 2). Many people always wonder what role genetics can play in a variety of diseases and conditions but the identification of this newly discovered genetic relationship is important.

First of all, it may help explain why many “leaner” individuals acquire Type 2 Diabetes and may also help to promote and/or show the importance of healthier eating plans. Appearing to be leaner does not always mean that a higher fat eating plan is acceptable for the long term for persons who don’t seem to gain lots of weight as a result of dietary choices. Indeed, the IRS1 gene was found to be linked only to lower levels of subcutaneous fat (fat found under the skin) and not the more dangerous visceral fat (fat deposited around the internal organs). This fact also indicates that even leaner individuals may have unhealthy levels of cholesterol (and, therefore, a greater risk of heart disease) if they possess this gene. To all the fatalists out there that may use this research as an excuse to assume that heart disease is just a roll of the dice—think again! Although people that are lean are likely to be healthier than those who are overweight or obese, a healthy eating plan and regular exercise is just as important to leaner individuals in terms of age at time of death and the incidence of the two killer diseases in the title of this article.

The authors of the research study referenced above were quick to explain, however, that the genetic link is only one part of a cascade of causes and effects that might ultimately lead to diabetes and heart disease. Although the worldwide epidemic of Type 2 Diabetes is, indeed, closely linked to overweight and obesity (it is know estimated that nearly 350 million people around the globe now suffer from the disease), those individuals involved in the study did follow a certain pattern of wellness (as opposed to illness) that was related to their lifestyle regardless of their body weight. In other words, those lean subjects identified with the IRS1gene (and there were about 75,000 people in the study) had lower levels of both heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes if they followed a healthier eating plan and exercised regularly. No surprise there, right!!

So it is true that genetics does play a role in the incidence of acquired diseases such as heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes but the ultimate effect of that role is still dependent on lifestyle choices that we make (or don’t make). And although genetic “phenotyping” may give us a glimpse of what MAY be in store for us with respect to our health, the ultimate choices that impact our health are still ours. And the IRS1 research has also shown that we CAN influence our health in a positive way by making some very simple choices concerning the types of foods that we consume, the quantity of foods that we consume.

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