Newly discovered gene is not an excuse for obesity

It is not a new fact that obesity rates in Samoa are among the highest on the planet. According to statistics provided by the World Health Organization, more than 80% of Samoa’s inhabitants who are older than fifteen years currently are obese. 

The serious side effects which accompany this unhealthy development are also well-known: heart diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, breathing difficulties and sleeping problems are only a few of the unpleasant and possibly lethal symptoms obesity can evoke.

Just recently, another finding was brought into the light of the day by Stephen McGarvey, corresponding author of a new paper in Nature Genetics and professor at the Brown University School of Public Health. In his paper, McGarvey explains that “A previously unknown genetic variant in an understudied gene is strongly associated with body-mass index (BMI) levels and other adiposity measures in Samoan men and women [as] we studied in 2010”.

Even though this new discover would deliver a simple excuse for people to pin their health problems on, the case is not as clear as it seems: “We have found [this] genetic variant with a reasonable biological mechanism, [but it] is just one part of the many reasons for the high levels of BMI and obesity among Samoans. [They] weren’t obese 200 years ago. The gene hasn’t changed that rapidly—it’s the nutritional environment that changed that rapidly.””, the professor states in his paper.

He is indeed not alone with his explanation. A man who is probably one of the most successful fighters against Samoa’s problem with obesity does not believe that people now should start blaming a special gene for their physical deficiencies. This man is Pastor Lenny Solomona.

“I do not have a great understanding about this gene, but what I do know is that it’s not just a gene that is going to be a risk factor for your health. We have to look at what we’re eating […] and drinking and we have to look at our own lifestyle in terms of exercising. I think it goes beyond a gene. Even if we did have that gene, we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for the weight that we gain. We all have a choice to make”.

Because the process of making choices surely can be a hard one in life, especially if they go along with the change of habits, the Pastor founded 1-Touch Ministry. The organisation has taken up the cause of regaining what most Samoans are lacking these days – a healthier way of living.

“We started in January 2013 with the aim of bringing our statistics down in terms of obesity, diabetes and so forth. In our first boot camp, we had 119 people. Within those ten weeks, which include training from Monday to Friday, people are provided with tools and principles to try and follow in the areas of exercise and nutrition”, Pastor Solomona was able to tell.

 The ten-week long boot camp does especially value what the Pastor describes as “superfoods” in terms of nutrition for the participants: “Here in Samoa, we’re blessed with a lot of those superfoods which just fall off our trees [and are] very organic. One of the things we often hear is that it’s expensive to eat healthy food”.

This prejudgement is one that 1-Touch Ministry often has to disprove. “That’s a mindset. It is not too expensive, it’s just that people are choosing the wrong types of food and sources, because their mindset tells them to rather eat this instead of that simply because it tastes better. A good example for this is water: a can of Coke is cheaper than a bottle of water, but why should I spend money on something that I can just get from the tap?”.

Although during the ten weeks of training and learning, the camp’s participants are provided with ideas for leading a healthier life, it is still up to them to take those advices explained by the Pastor and his team. “We talk about eating more times a day and less portions, taking them through all the different types of foods they can have access to and we ask them to build their own menu. There’s no point in giving my diet plan to somebody else if he or she doesn’t enjoy the food that I eat. Our message is: you eat what you like, as long as it has got nutriments, vitamins and minerals. Sometimes, it just takes planning. If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail”.

Because the program’s starting point three years ago only geared towards adult participants who are interested in making the final change to a better lifestyle, 1-Touch Ministry extended it not long ago to also reach those who make up Samoa’s future – the children.

“We run a children’s program called ‘Nobesity Samoa’. We’re teaching the parents, but the way they lead their lives of course affects how the children live”.

With the right kind of nutrition and the daily exercise, one could indeed assume that the boot camp’s main aim is to encourage its participants to lose weight. But in fact, the process of losing weight is just one of the many positive side effects the program offers.  

“It is focussed on transformation, not on weight loss. Yes, we want people to lose weight, but even more we want them to live a healthier life”. 

According to Pastor Lenny Solomona, the boot camp is only the beginning for people to share the idea of a healthier way of living. “We’re trying to incorporate something that will sustain for the rest of their lives”.

When speaking of a sustainable way of leading a life, the community spirit shared by the boot camp’s participants is what encourages them to keep facing the challenge of changing their life. A man that can approve this fact is Pepe Christian Fruean. Being a participant in the currently ongoing 11th renewal of 1-Touch Ministry’s boot camp, he can only thank the team for what they provided him with so far. “It’s great and I’ve met some wonderful, likeminded people who, just like me have let their jobs and other reasons become excuses for not being active”.

Taking part in the camp’s third week now, Mr Fruean has already noticed the positive impact that a healthier way of live has on him: “I’ve definitely noticed improvements in terms of sleep. When you get up, of course you still feel sore but also refreshed and your mind is positive. You feel a lot better and less grumpy”.

What the participant describes as “the most important thing” of the program was in fact the most difficult one to get used to for Pepe Fruean. “It was hard for me to change my way of nutrition. Now, the third week still is hard but the more you learn about the types of things you should be eating, the more you also get aware of the consequences the stuff has that you don’t eat. It is all about relearning and I really like it. That’s why I want to continue being more conscious even after those ten weeks. If I can give up certain things for ten weeks, I might also be able to give them up for longer”, Mr Fruean explained.

With such a changed way of thinking about the own way a person should lead his or her life in the years to come, 1-Touch Ministry has achieved to at least start making the people of Samoa aware that a healthy lifestyle is what counts – no matter if there is a certain gene that seems to stigmatize a person’s fate of becoming obese or not. 

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