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If you just can't resist that unctuous, high-calorie dessert or you are always the person at the table who finishes the bowl, the reason you have so much trouble mustering your willpower may be your genetics. But there are things you can do about that.

"If your fat cells are yellin'," American TV's Dr. Oz is famous for saying, "the problem is ghrelin." Ghrelin is a hormone the stomach release to send a message to your brain that you are not full yet. When your stomach releases this hormone, you feel a literal, physical pain for food, until you eat, and possibly eat some more.

Some people, a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation tells us, want to eat all the time because they have genes that program their fat cells to keep secreting ghrelin even after they eat.

Feed Me 'Til I Want No More

The reason the hormone ghrelin keeps us fat is that it acts on our brain in ways that make high-calorie foods look more attractive than low-calorie foods. Obesity researcher Tony Goldstone, MD, PhD, senior clinician scientist at MRC Clinical Sciences Centre at the Imperial College of London and Hammersmith Hospital, recruited 18 normal-weight, young, healthy adult men and women to submit to MRI brain scans after overnight fasting followed by more fasting or a 730-calorie breakfast and a shot of either ghrelin or saline solution.

Goldstone found that whether the volunteers had eaten or not, and whether they had been given an injection of ghrelin or not, foods like carrot sticks and salad didn't "light up" the anterior orbital frontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in food-seeking behavior. When the volunteers ate the breakfast and were given an injection of saline, high-calorie foods like pizza did not cause the brain to light up on MRI, either. But when the volunteers were not fed breakfast, or when they were fed the breakfast and given a shot of ghrelin, their brains lit up especially bright when they were shown photos of high-calorie foods.

Ghrelin resets the brain to direct food-seeking behaviors as if the stomach were empty, even when it's full. Ghrelin probably is responsible for binge eating and compulsive eating. And some people are genetically programmed to create a double dose of this gotta'-eat chemical.

The Gene That Keeps You From Fitting In Your Jeans

Scientists have known since 2007. that the production of ghrelin is programmed by a gene called FTO. More recently, scientists have discovered that there are two versions of the gene that they label A and T. Everyone has two FTO genes. If you inherited the AA combination, you are 70% more likely to become obese than if you inherited the TT combination. You are genetically programmed to want to keep eating after you are full, and you are genetically programmed to eat high-calorie foods.

But what can you do about that?

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Karra E, O'Daly OG, Choudhury AI, Yousseif A, Millership S, Neary MT, Scott WR, Chandarana K, Manning S, Hess ME, Iwakura H, Akamizu T, Millet Q, Gelegen C, Drew ME, Rahman S, Emmanuel JJ, Williams SC, Rüther UU, Brüning JC, Withers DJ, Zelaya FO, Batterham RL. A link between FTO, ghrelin, and impaired brain food-cue responsivity. J Clin Invest. 2013 Aug 1. 123(8):3539-51. doi: 10.1172/JCI44403. Epub 2013 Jul 15.
  • Schaeffer M, Langlet F, Lafont C, Molino F, Hodson DJ, Roux T, Lamarque L, Verdié P, Bourrier E, Dehouck B, Banères JL, Martinez J, Méry PF, Marie J, Trinquet E, Fehrentz JA, Prévot V, Mollard P. Rapid sensing of circulating ghrelin by hypothalamic appetite-modifying neurons. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Jan 22. 110(4):1512-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1212137110. Epub 2013 Jan 7.
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