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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

School Winner: Obesity and the ‘fat gene’

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    05 Nov

    Science fact

    Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy. 

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    Winning Entry Withington Girls' SchoolTwo Winning Entries - WGS & WHGS5C Radhika portrait croppedObesity today is one of the biggest burdens on the United Kingdom’s economy; an incredible £47 billion is spent a year on obesity-related illnesses. It does not even stop there; people today are increasingly becoming more and more obese due to the abundance of food in developed countries, so the cost will continue to rise. In 2014, 67% of men and 57% of women were classed as overweight or obese in the UK using the BMI scale. So what is the underlying issue causing this black hole in our economy? Finding out the sole cause for obesity is extremely complex as there are many risk factors linked to it and there are many opinions as to what can cause it. There is a theory of the ‘fat gene’ (or more accurately, the fat allele) but there is no solid proof that it exists. Studies have shown that, where it exists, the fat mass and obesity associated gene (FTO) may raise the chances of obesity by 23%, but, it is limited to increasing your body mass by a mere 1kg. This means indulging yourself on holiday is more likely to increase your body mass than this gene. So, is the genetic explanation merely an easy way out of eating healthier food? Unlike the insubstantial theories about the ‘fat gene’, obesity is directly linked to overeating, physical inactivity and the frequency we eat certain foods with scientific facts to provide proof. Overeating causes obesity because food high in fat and sugar are very energy dense so it is most likely that it is more than your body can metabolise at a time so the molecules are stored as fat. Physical inactivity may also lead to obesity because people who live sedentary lifestyles burn less fat than people with active ones and so their metabolic rate is slower than most. Fat is a large molecule compared to simple sugars, such as glucose, so fat requires more physical exercise to be burnt, because it takes longer to be hydrolysed, therefore it is more likely to be stored.

    'It goes to show we're not complete slaves to our genetic makeup and really can make a big difference to our future health by changing our behaviour.' (Dr Ruth Loos)

    In conclusion, most of the factors affecting obesity are linked to the metabolism of a person. Metabolism may be genetic because if both parents have a slow metabolism, it may be inherited by the child, but people are able to boost their metabolism through varying methods. The point is; genetics is an element, up to an extent, in how a person’s body may deal with food, but, if you are in a society that gives you so many opportunities to eat fatty foods, no matter what gene pool you come from, obesity may be inevitable for many. It is in our power to alter our metabolism through exercise, drinking more water and eating certain foods. Despite genetics being a factor in obesity, promoting a healthy body image through exercise and healthier eating can make the effects of the ‘fat gene’ redundant.

    Radhika Sood
    Withington Girls' School
    Hi, I'm Radhika and I am in year 12 at Withington Girl's School. I have had an interest of science from a very young age, from how you can see cells that are only nanometres in size to the extent of the universe. I am particularly interested in the quantitative aspects of the sciences and I enjoy the several challenges school gives us the opportunity to partake in. In my spare time I enjoy outdoor activities, such as playing tennis and am currently working towards my Duke of Edinburgh award. I also enjoy rock climbing, paintballing and zip lines.