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Willpower Gene

For years overweight people have been scolded for lack of will power. If they had more, thinking went, they’d eat less and not grow fat. The term has always made me think of a product, as if out we could go and buy a box of Will Power somewhere (you know, sitting there on the shelf next to the Elbow Grease). At the least, it seemed as if we should be able to scrounge up more of it if we tried hard enough.

Now a study at the State University of New York at Buffalo (Allure, May 2008, “Body News”) has discovered where will power comes from and the reason some of us have it and others don’t. Big surprise—it’s in our genes! What researchers discovered is actually an anti-will power gene variant, rather than a gene for it. They found that overeating was linked to a gene involved in chemical addiction (drugs and alcohol) and that folks who carry a specific gene variant and who “find food to be a strong motivator were at highest risk for indulging in snacks compared with subjects who had one or neither trait.”

They go on to say that 30-40% of the population may have this gene variant which causes a deficiency in the brain’s reward signal so that people need to keep engaging in more of certain behaviors (drinking, drugging, eating) to feel as much pleasure as those with a normal signal. Makes sense: the reward center of the brain lights up when we feel pleasure. This fact explains the desperate, driven compulsion toward food that many of us know all too well. The urge to eat or keep eating doesn’t feel psychological or emotional. Rather, it seems to come from somewhere deep inside us—way out of conscious control. Now we know that the intensity of this urge may be due to not being able to derive pleasure from eating as quickly as other people do.

Lest you be feeling defective and hopeless about having this gene variant, the study’s co-author, Jennifer L. Temple, says that for people who are vulnerable to overeating due to this gene variant, exercise is key because it “releases the same reward chemicals in the brain and can act as a substitute for food.” We’ve known for years that exercise releases feel-good endorphins, but how many overeaters think to exercise to “get the high”? I’m not saying you should rush onto the treadmill when you’re craving Ring Dings, and you have to be careful not to become addicted to exercise merely for runner’s rush. Many activities which are fun or exciting can make you feel good and bring you pleasure. So, consider the fact that the point isn’t only to not eat, but to find enough joy and good feelings that you’d rather do something else than eat.