• Lydia Chu

Do genes really matter?

Why do some people gain weight more than others and get sick more often? Is it really in the genes?


I was two years old in this picture (2nd from the right)

When I was growing up, I was told that I had my father's genes. It's because my father and I were the only ones who were not overweight in my family and hardly ever got sick, but if you look at the pictures of my family before coming to the United States, none of us were overweight. Two of my older brothers who are now doctors became moderately overweight over the years, but my mother ended up gaining over 50 pounds within 5 years of living in the United States and dealt with numerous health issues. My younger sister also ended up being quite heavy by the time she became a teenager and as far as my younger brother, he's currently about 60 pounds overweight and continues to struggle with his weight.


My family's health history since we've been living in the United States since 1976


My mother


my mother making meals in an outdoor kitchen in Korea

My mother had just barely weighed about 120 pounds when we came to this country even after bearing 5 children and never had any serious health problems that I can remember. When she was living in Korea, she ate mostly home cooked meals consisting mostly of seafood and vegetables. Meat was very scarce and expensive so my parents couldn't afford to eat much of it at all. It was also an era where women made home-cooked meals for their families and hardly ever went out to eat. White rice with kimchi, vegetables and beans were the most common food on dinner tables back then. Fish was a treat, and meat was rare only reserved for special occasions. Back then, there were also no fast food places such as McDonald's or KFC and hardly any processed food. If anything, it was a problem of undernourishment, not overeating.


Mom doing laundry in Korea

She also stayed extremely busy as a stay-at-home mom raising five children. Moms back then did all the housework such as doing the laundry and washing dishes by hand since they didn't have the luxury of having a washing machine, a dryer or a dishwasher. Since my dad worked full time outside the house, my mom was in charge of most of the housework which kept her very busy. It's no wonder she stayed so thin.


When we moved to the United States, my mother worked around the clock sitting in front of the sewing machine working about 15 - 20 hours a day. That's pretty much all she did. Just like most of us, she was totally unaware of the consequences of poor diet and lack of exercise. She ate whatever she wanted to eat especially meat to get the energy she needed to get her through those long working hours. I remember those days like yesterday when my mother was sick and she was sick a lot. She practically lived on Anacin which caused her to have a bleeding ulcer later in life.


Mom at her heaviest

On some days, my mother was too sick to walk from the car to the house when she came home so we had to wheel her in to the house using chairs with wheels. Those were the darker days when my mother struggled with her health and ended up developing diabetes which she still struggles with to this day.


When she finally retired after twenty years of hard labor, she started focusing more on her health. Like most of us, she mainly focused on exercise by joining a gym and went on many different diets to lose weight. With diet, she concentrated on the quantity of the food instead of the quality so despite her tireless efforts, she has not been very successful in getting down to her idea weight. Three years ago when she got her cholesterol checked, it was way over 200 mg/dL and her glucose level was around 160 mg/dL, and is still about 20 pounds overweight.


My father


My parents in their younger days

My father growing up ate mostly rice, flour, beans and vegetables since that was all his family could afford at the time. Sweets and snacks were almost unheard of during his younger days so he never acquired the taste for such things. Even to this day, he hardly ever snacks and simply enjoys eating three meals a day in moderate portions. Even though my father ate meat and saw meat as a necessity in obtaining an optimal health, he didn't indulge on them like my mother did. He ate in moderation and with it, incorporated a lot more healthy beans and vegetables into his diet. This is how he ate most of his life and that's what he was used to.


My father is a very active person to this day. He was never interested in sitting around and watching TV. I don't have any memories of my dad sitting in front of television. What I do remember about my father is that he constantly stayed busy by working, mowing the lawn, cleaning and fixing things around the house. He didn't even join a gym until he retired at the age of about 65, but he was able to stay pretty healthy just by having a healthy lifestyle. He did drive my mom crazy because he would never sit still.


Then, about twenty years ago, when my parents retired, my father became less active. He went from working 80 - 90 hours a day to not working at all, and this is when he started to gain some weight and for a while, ended up weighing about 160 pounds on a 5' 4" frame. That's when he started going to the gym and took on hobbies such as swimming and doing stretches. Even though he would sometimes gain a little bit of weight, it usually didn't last too long before his weight would come down again, and due to his good eating habits and active lifestyle, he never even came close to being obese.


When my parents moved to Sacramento from Houston three years ago, he had weighed 150 pounds. At that time, his cholesterol was way over 200 mg/dL with a high LDL level (bad cholesterol). Since then, he has lost about 20 pounds just by exercising regularly, changing his diet and reducing restaurant meals . Even though my father's preference had always been a home cooked meal, he had his share of dining out. He used to love Costco pizza and in-n-out burgers and loved going to buffets where he would occasionally indulge himself on massive amount of unhealthy food.


By staying active with regular exercise and a healthy diet, he's now at 130 pounds. He no longer feasts on buffets and has cut out most of the restaurant meals, and mainly eats a healthy meals prepared at home. Even though he doesn't eat as much meat as he used to, he still enjoys eating meat once in a while.


My siblings


For my two older brothers who were moderately overweight growing up, they have managed to stay pretty much the same over the years and hasn't had any health issues as far as I know . My younger brother, on the other hand, has gained quite a bit of weight over the years and was at the heaviest at 270 pounds at 5' 8" frame as of recently as 6 months ago. Currently, once again, he has decided to lose weight by watching his diet (mostly portion control) and going to the gym. Even though he's been down this road many times before over the years, he's more determined than ever to lose weight and regain his health.


My younger brother is someone who loves to dine out and enjoys indulging on a lot of processed and fast food. Even though he enjoyed playing sports and worked out when he was younger, that all came to a halt when he became a hard-working father. Due to his hectic and family work schedule, he lost most of his motivation to work out and like a lot of us, became addicted to comfort food. Three months ago, he decided enough was enough and got started on a new diet and lost 25 pounds. His goal is to lose another 45 pounds by the end of the year.


My younger sister also started putting on weight pretty much right after we moved to the United States when she was 8 years old. She became overweight by the time she was a teenager. When she came to live with me after college when I was living in Korea, she lost most of her excess weight and had returned to a normal weight. It was all due to a healthier diet and a lot of walking! (When you live in Seoul, you have to walk pretty much everywhere whether you like it or not). When she moved back to America after she got married, she slowly started gaining weight again and is currently heavier than she would like to be. She's also not an active person. Although she's pretty naturally athletic, she doesn't exercise and doesn't have an active lifestyle. Unfortunately, she deals with a lot of health issues including bad allergies. She's even allergic to gold and sun and often breaks out in hives for no particular reason.



Family picture 6 years after we moved to the US

When I think about my family's health history including mine, I have no doubt that the environment and lifestyle plays a key role in our health. Do genes really have a great impact on whether we become obese and develop diseases?


Once, I was told by a medical doctor that it was mostly the bad genes that determine our well-being. I'm sure genes have something to do with it and some of us are not as lucky as others, but for most part, the environment we create for our bodies will have a greater impact on how well our bodies will perform and stay healthy. Did my father and I get lucky in that we never became obese and never developed any serious illnesses? I used to think so when I didn't know better, but I had my share of struggles with my weight when I wasn't eating healthfully and living a sedentary lifestyle, and it was the same for my dad who wasn't immune either.


When my dad and I became overweight, it was during the time when we were both in the stages of our lives when we became a lot less active and were consuming a lot of unhealthful food. I used to think that no matter what I eat, as long as I eat in moderation and exercise to burn those calories, I would be fine. I no longer believe that's true. For me, my current diet contributes 70% of my health. Just like any other living animals or things, we're not going to thrive without proper nourishment.


A healthy diet is like gasoline for our cars. Would unleaded cars run properly on a diesel? I would say not. What happens if we pour gasoline over a small flame? It would ignite and create a fire that's going to be out of control. Genetic predisposition is like a small flame that lives in all of us. Whether that flame turns into a fire will be determined by the food we put into our bodies. Things the food industry has us believe is food is not a real food but things that resemble food that contains toxic chemicals and additives that can ignite the genes that lies dormant in our bodies and cause us to get sick while the food industry makes billions of dollars a year.


Our bodies are meant to run on a healthy diet that is full of natural nutrients that come from naturally grown vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains. With a healthy diet, our bodies can thrive and function properly even with a negative genetic predisposition.


Once I had a friend who told me that he got unlucky and had his mom's bad teeth and that's why he was always going to the dentist to have work done on his teeth. At the time, I wondered, but now I think about it, I think it might have been all the soda and sweets he was consuming at the time. Soda was the first thing he drank in the morning and the last thing he drank before going to bed. I have no doubt he was creating a perfect environment for his genetic variations to thrive.


Looking back now, it all makes sense why I was not overweight like the rest of my family. It wasn't because I had some magic genes like my father. We both ate, for most part, pretty healthfully and had a healthy lifestyle. Did we have a perfect health? Probably not. My father wasn't at his healthiest when he wasn't taking care of himself and neither was I.


We all have more control of our destiny than we like to believe. We owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to take care of our health so we can enjoy the rest of our lives in good health. What good is it to live a long life if the only way to stay alive is to be put on medications while pharmaceutical companies get rich by selling us expensive drugs. If only we could see what happens to our bodies after taking in toxic chemicals that are in our so-called "food", we wouldn't be waiting until we get too sick to do anything about it.




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