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Is dieting pointless if my whole family is overweight?

This is a prevalent brain-based misconception about change, and it’s an unfortunate side effect of advances in neuroscience. But a few quick moments of critical thinking show that it’s simply a variation on the old theme -- “it’s all willpower,” “it’s all about money,” and now, “it’s all in my genes.” This is the either-or, black and white thinking of a fourth-grader.

Yes, of course, biology impacts your behavior, your metabolism, your impulse control, and all physical features. Biology sets some practical limits on what we can accomplish in life. That scientific fact, however, doesn’t mean that we are at the mercy of our genes. Genes exert powerful influences, but they don’t determine our destiny.

This myth has infected our society. I meet hundreds of folks who insist that they are shackled by their genetics to a lifetime of addictions, obesity, and smoking. I immediately empathize with their family history, but then respectfully challenge their thinking. Do you know anyone with a similar family history who is not overweight? What percentage of people with parents who are overweight do not develop those problems? (It’s the majority, by the way).

That’s the crucial difference between genetic determination and genetic predisposition. In other words, your DNA is not necessarily your fate. Far from it.

Beyond the inaccuracy of the myth, the genetics hype is worrisome for another reason: people engaging in the riskiest health behaviors, and who are most in need of self-change, are more likely to blame their genes. They use their genes as an excuse to continue unhealthy behaviors. And the unhealthier the behavior, the more they latch on to genetic justification for their problems. This defensive reaction allows people to blame health problems as “beyond my control” and then spiral down into “I can’t change.” Blaming DNA bodes ill for people in so many ways.

We are free to exert our will, no matter what the biological onstraints. Remember that the brain-behavior interaction goes both ways: your behavior impacts your biology and influences the expression of those genes. So, the next time you succumb to the brainwashing and begin blaming your biology for your weight problem, get real and remind yourself “it’s just genetics, not destiny.”

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.