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How Amish Avoid Obesity

A common, contagious cold virus could be making you fat. But not all obesity experts believe it. (Image credit: ScienCentral.com)

Your weight problem might be written in your genes but not written in the stars, according to a study published in the current issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore studying Old Order Amish — the Amish sect that shuns most modern conveniences — found that middle-aged Amish adults with the so-called "obesity gene" could beat their genetic destiny and maintain and healthy weight through pure physical activity.

You don't have to raise a barn or harrow a field with a horse and hitch to stay thin. But you do need to play hard, the study found, burning about a thousand calories a day through vigorous exercise such as rowing or running for an hour.

Take your buggy to work day

It's no illusion that some people pack on the pounds more easily than others despite a similar diet and level of physical exertion. In recent years researchers have found numerous genes contributing to weight gain and eating behavior.

Carriers of a mutations in one gene, called the fat mass and obesity associated (FTO) gene, present in nearly half of European stock, are about 30 to 60 percent more likely to be fat. The University of Maryland researchers decided to examine the FTO gene in the homogenous Amish community. They found that, as with others of European descent, this gene did contribute to being overweight in the Amish community.

But the excess weight was seen only in those individuals with low physical activity scores, mostly women performing house chores. The genes had absolutely no effect for those burning an additional 900 calories through several hours of moderately intensive physical exercise — such as farming like it was 1708.

Pass the bacon

Physical activity even trumped diet. The Amish enjoy eating every part of the pig with gusto, along with gravy, potatoes and pies. And they get away with it. An earlier study found that Amish men walk 18,000 steps per day, compared to about 18 steps from house to car to office that many Americans get. Life's just different without electricity and running water.

The Amish do have an advantage in that they burn more calories through exercise throughout their entire lives, and they are in effect nurturing nature. Not gaining excess weight is the easiest way to maintain a healthy weight.

Yet at a very basic level the University of Maryland study reveals what is perhaps obvious to many: Population-wide obesity is a modern phenomenon. We carry the same genes as our ancestors did, but lifestyle changes have brought on the obesity epidemic.

Maintaining a healthy weight is very hard for some people in this modern world, and losing weight is even harder, but it is possible — and in a different time or place, such as among men in buggies with funky beards but no mustaches, being thin would be commonplace.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Christopher Wanjek is the Bad Medicine columnist for Live Science and a health and science writer based near Washington, D.C.  He is the author of two health books, "Food at Work" (2005) and "Bad Medicine" (2003), and a comical science novel, "Hey Einstein" (2012). For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he occasionally opines with a great deal of healthy skepticism. His "Food at Work" book and project, commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization, concerns workers health, safety and productivity. Christopher has presented this book in more than 20 countries and has inspired the passage of laws to support worker meal programs in numerous countries. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University. He has two Twitter handles, @wanjek (for science) and @lostlenowriter (for jokes).