You Can't Change Your Genes, Just Change Your Behavior

You Can't Change Your Genes, Just Change Your Behavior

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

What's the one big difference between slim and obese individuals? You can answer it in one word, "Behaviors!"

Slim people tend to have behaviors that favor slimness. Obese people tend to have behaviors that favor obesity.

Let's set aside the debate about genes we can't do anything about and talk about behavior we can do something about.

Last week, taking the flight back home, a lady who boarded the plane with me finished a humongous size coke of 24 or 32 ounce as we waited for the flight to take off. She was noticeably obese. The label on her drink indicated it was regular, not diet coke. Half an hour into the flight, the flight attendant came to take orders for drinks. I ordered for a glass of water. Guess what she ordered? Coke of course!

Some of you might say I had no business to judge her or eye her drink. I didn't judge her. Instead, I felt compassion for her. I wondered if in years to come she would have to grapple with such conditions as hypertension, diabetes, premature wear and tear of knees and hips, nagging back pain, arthritis and so on.

I am not an expert on genes, but I know for sure there is no "Coke gene" or "water gene" behind the two different choices that she and I made. I don't even know if she knew the connection between consumption of Coke and obesity. For all I know she might have thought she had no choice in the matter because she didn't like anything but Coke. I don't know if she even thought anything at all about her behavior. Perhaps, she always drank Coke and drinking Coke has become an automatic behavior for her.

I looked at the people around me and several of them were drinking some type of sugared drink. I wondered to myself why so few people think about health. I wondered how many people in the aircraft knew that the humidity inside the aircraft is only ten percent. A desert has 30% humidity! Combined with extremely low humidity and high pressure in the compartment, you lose about 2 liters of water in a 4-5 hour flight! So, flying from east coast to west coast, you are practically dehydrated. Why would you consume something like soda with sugar, which will dehydrate you even more!

Corporate America exploits our lack of health consciousness. Only the enlightened parents enforce strict limits on consumption of beverages and junk food by their children. For others, food and beverage markets determine how much and what they would consume.

When soft drinks first entered the market, a 6-ounce bottle was the standard serving size. Now one can carries double the amount. In a fast food restaurant, they will serve you three or four times the amount of a can. The beverage market wants you to get used to larger and larger sizes so they can sell you more.

Sometimes, instead of increasing the standard size of a product, companies reduce it. Take for example, a bag of potato chips. Ten percent of people consume 90% of the potato chips sold in our country. The market, of course, pays extremely close attention to that ten percent. Some years ago, potato chip researchers noted that the "heavy users" (forgive the pun) eat every bit of the 7-ounce chips during a typical chips eating event. Guess what do the potato chip producers do then? They reduce the size of the bag from 7-ounce to 6 and ounce! Why? Because, the unsatisfied consumer in question, addicted to eating 7-ounces of chips at a time, might feel compelled to open yet another bag!

Nowadays, chip bags come in 3-ounce and 4-ounce bags. I don't yet know the market incentive behind such a move. But you can be sure there is some marketing ploy behind the current sizes.

Producers know how to manipulate your taste buds and hunger satiation. When you eat something over and over again or a lot of it in a short period, your brain learns to be satiated. Your brain sends the signal and you stop eating. Such is not the case with many marketed products. The mechanism of satiety doesn't work.

There is a reason why the satiation mechanism doesn't work. Food producers keep changing one thing or the other in the ingredients, colors or the preservatives and thus outsmart your brain before it catches up with the product! Therefore, we don't reach the satiety point. We don't get bored with a particular food item because of clever manipulation of our taste buds. We are duped into eating more and more of the same.

As there is no soft drink gene, there is no "chips gene" either. Food is a biological need, but our preference for a particular food item is a learned behavior. Parents, friends or someone else initiates the behavior by offering that food and we learn to like it. Then we repeat that behavior over and over again.

You can unlearn a behavior just as you learned it.

Here is another pet peeve of mine: the habit of skipping breakfast. People think they are helping themselves by skipping breakfast? Wrong! Research shows that the habit of eating a healthy breakfast helps to curb the appetite, and reduces the chances of adult diabetes and obesity.

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Copyright 2003, Mind Publications 
Posted June 2003


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