It’s All in the Genes

11 Mar 2013

Are you destined to inherit your mother’s health and body shape? We investigate out how much control you really have over your future well-being...

Breast Cancer
You may be surprised to know that the vast majority of breast cancer is not hereditary. It’s estimated that between five and ten per cent of breast cancers occur in women whose families have an abnormal gene (BRCA1 and BRCA2) that is passed down through generations, putting them at greater risk of developing the disease. However, whilst women who carry one of the BRCA genes, or have strong family history, are at higher risk, there are many other risk factors, such as being overweight, excessive alcohol consumption, poor diet and lack of physical activity, that increase your risk, too.
What Can You Do?
There is no sure-fire way to prevent breast cancer, however, there are things all women can do to reduce their risk. Maintaining a healthy weight and enjoying a balanced diet, including plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and wholegrains and low amounts of saturated fat and alcohol, are recommended. You can combine these lifestyle choices with being more vigilant about screening tests, such as mammograms, especially after the age of 40. If you have a blood relative who has had breast cancer, you can also ask to be genetically screened and to be more closely monitored.

Mental illness, including depression, is known to run in families, and research shows that there’s a 10 per cent chance you will inherit it if you have a family history. But even when depression may be partly due to an inherited tendency, it also largely depends on factors like how you grew up, the environment around you and your day to day lifestyle.
What Can You Do?
There are a number of recognised protective factors for beating the blues. Getting adequate sleep and enjoying a variety of relaxation techniques, including meditation, deep breathing, and yoga, can help you cope with the stressors that may contribute to depression. Regular physical activity, such as brisk walking, jogging or cycling, causes brain pleasure centres to be stimulated and leads to general feelings of wellbeing. Research also shows that a diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids plays a crucial role in healthy brain function. Foods rich in Omega-3 fats include oily fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel), flaxseeds and walnuts. Opt for up to three servings of fish a week and a handful of nuts and seeds each day.

Research published in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition reveals certain variations within the FTO gene, otherwise known as the obesity gene, may play a role in eating habits that can cause obesity. However, having the so-called obesity gene doesn’t necessarily mean you are doomed to a life of plumpness. The latest studies reveal you can no longer use the excuse that your “genes” are to blame for the blubber, with researchers determining that being physically active affects the FTO gene by reducing obesity risk by an average of 27 per cent when compared with people who were inactive.
What Can You Do?
No matter what your genes or your environment might be, the solution to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is loud and clear: you can’t gain weight unless you’re taking in more calories than you’re expending. Most health officials advocate 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week. Activities like brisk walking, jogging and cycling are great ways to kickstart a healthy lifestyle.

Heart Disease
A recent Oxford University study found women whose mothers suffered strokes or chest pain due to blocked arteries had a 20 per cent risk of having a heart attack or stroke. The study found the inherited vascular disease could affect the coronary artery in both the heart and the cerebral artery in the brain. However, researchers are still not sure whether genes or lifestyle factors, such as daughters copying their mothers’ unhealthy eating habits, plays the larger role.
What Can You Do?
The good news is 80 per cent of heart disease and stroke can be prevented. As with most chronic diseases, a healthy lifestyle is important. Maintaining a healthy weight, getting plenty of physical activity and eating a balanced diet low in saturated fat and salt will help, as will reducing alcohol consumption and giving up the deadly habit of smoking.

Body shape
Get used to loving your body because you can’t escape your shape! Studies suggest that while your genes may determine up to 80 per cent of your body shape, environment and personal choice still play a significant role. However, some aspects of body shape are more closely related to genes than others. For example, the ability to build muscle has a lot to do with your genes. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that while you need physical activity to build muscle, people who have “muscular genes” need less exercise than others to look fit. Certain body types also have more to do with genetics. The apple shape is more likely to be inherited than the pear, which some speculate is because you also inherit genes from your father, and men typically store extra fat in their guts. This means if both your mother and father carry extra weight around their middle, unfortunately you may too. This can be worrisome, as carrying more fat around the waist is associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
What Can You Do?
Genetics matter, but there’s still much you can do to obtain the body you want. Admittedly, you can’t suddenly spring long legs or determine where your excesses cling to you. However, anybody who is carrying excess weight will improve their health and fitness through diet and exercise. To reduce your waistline, opt for a minimum of 30 minutes of cardio exercise on most days of the week such as running, swimming, cycling or aerobics, to target fat and improve heart health, along with eating a balanced, portion-controlled diet.

Kathleen Alleaume is a nutritionist, the founder of The Right Balance and author of What’s Eating You?

Winning the Genetic War
No matter what health conditions your mother may have had, and no matter what risks she may have passed on to you, nothing is written in stone. At the end of the day, lifestyle trumps bad genetics in the majority of cases. In other words, your genes load the gun, but your environment and what you do pulls the trigger – and you’ve got control of that!

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