There’s a whole slew of reasons why some people are more predisposed to being overweight than others. Some of them have to do with nurture – how they were raised, where they live, peer pressures, etc. Other reasons have to do with nature – how high are their metabolisms, do they have a thyroid issue, and some people are just born bigger than others. However, chances are pretty good that there is more than just one reason why our population’s weight is spiraling out of control, and even better if you consider people on an individual basis.
Now, a recent study from Penn State University’s Kathleen Keller shows a very clear correlation between one specific combination of nature and nurture variables in determining the likely weight of young children. If you grow up near a whole lot of places to get junk food and not many places that carry produce, you may or may not get chunky. If your genetics dictate that you are a “non-taster” – that is, that you can’t taste bitter compounds like 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) – you also may or may not get chunky.
But if you’re a non-taster growing up close to eight McDonalds, you’re going to get chunky.
About 30 percent of the American population is considered non-tasters. Thanks to a slight variant in the way the taste buds work, those lucky few can’t taste bitter compounds similar to those found in cruciferous vegetables like cabbage and broccoli. While this means that those people are more likely to enjoy those and other bitter vegetables, it also means they don’t get as much out of the good stuff.
You see, it’s not only the bitters. Non-tasters are also thought to have fewer taste buds and a reduced sensitivity to all sorts of tastes and textures, including the sweets of sugars and the oils of fats. So while some people get a lot of joy out of just a spoonful of high-fat, decadent ice cream, others just don’t.
So they eat a lot of it to compensate.
On the other side of the research, you have those that live close to a lot of junk food outlets without a lot of healthy options within walking distance. And since this study examined 120 ethnically diverse children between the ages of 4 and 6 living in New York City, it is pretty likely that their parents either don’t have a car or prefer to walk to do their shopping rather than brave the traffic of the city.
As I alluded to earlier, while both of these factors present risks for children to become obese, neither of them were good predictors of the children’s weight in the study. However, when combined together, they became a very strong predictor. In fact, non-taster children who lived with a lot of unhealthy dining options within a mile radius had average body mass indexes over the 95th percentile.
Just in case you missed that, their average weight was obese. Not the top 25 percent or heaviest few. Their average.
Now, the next question is whether or not these results hold up in a non-city atmosphere. What happens when parents or other caregivers can just drive right past the McDonalds and go 10 miles to the nearest Whole Foods? It’s a question that Keller is working to answer next.