One of the biggest misconceptions in nutrition is that your genetics dictates and runs the game. In fact, this isn’t JUST limited to nutrition. People make these assumptions about their training, ability to lose weight and build muscle, their work ethic, values, etc.
But does genetics actually play that big of a role...or do we just LET it? Do we use genetics as an excuse for poor behaviors, lack of motivation and discipline, and when it really boils down to it...our failures.
Fortunately for you, that will hopefully be answered by the end of this blog post. Today, I’m going to teach you just what genetics and genes are, why they matter and IF they’re to blame for your lack of results.
What is genetics?
Genetics is simply the study of genes. Your genes are the qualities that make you...well you. They include the color of your hair, eyes, and skin. Your genes decide how tall you’re going to be. They decide [sometimes] what illnesses, diseases, and conditions you will or could develop.
Genes are the basic unit of hereditary. You get a set from your mom and a set from your dad. They are made of up DNA, which is essentially the code that will make you who you are.
The process of going from DNA to reality is through a complex series of steps where DNA from your cells gets transcribed into RNA which is then translated into amino acids and eventually proteins. The proteins are basically the functional unit of DNA. Think of a book. DNA represents the letters that will be used to create the book. The letters are put into words (RNA) which are then comprised into sentences, paragraphs, and coherent pages (proteins). The proteins are sent to the appropriate places to be used (where its function is needed). This is how we get blue eyes, skin, everything that makes you, you. It all is units of proteins that came from your written code, your DNA.
*SIDE BAR – this is why eating a high protein diet is SO FREAKING IMPORTANT. It’s not about muscle. Majority of that protein is going to be used to keep you functioning*
Unfortunately and fortunately, some genes you don’t have control over like the color of your eyes, hair, skin, how tall you are, etc. These factors are pretty fixed kind of like the letters in the book. An ‘a’ is an ‘a’, a ‘b’ is a ‘b’.
Other factors, though, aren’t fixed. CONTEXT becomes important here. Is the ‘a’ going to be used on its own or in the word “laugh” or “attitude”? The CONTEXT of the book matters and dictates how the letters will be used.
Your environment dictates your genes
This is called “epigenetics”.
Some people are born with mutations or genes that (if genetics was fixed) would guarantee the development of certain diseases and illnesses.
The BRCA gene mutation is the classic example. Some people are born with BRCA mutations and NEVER develop breast cancer. Some people are born with perfect genes and DO develop cancer (why not all smokers get lung cancer and why some non-smokers do get lung cancer.
Genes predispose. They don’t determine.
The BRCA mutation is simply a hit...something that makes you a bit more likely to develop breast cancer. If you adjust your environment to AVOID other hits (you don’t smoke, you wear sunscreen, you limit alcohol intake, you manage stress, etc.) then there is a high probability you don’t develop breast cancer.
Genes have been shown to influence factors like your personality, motivation, cravings, and even ability to lose weight. We know those people who are genetically gifted to build muscle. I know a woman who could pretty much lift up a 5lb dumbbell and be jacked, whereas I know others who could squat 500lbs and only have a little quad definition.
But here’s the kicker...just because your genes influence certain behaviors and factors doesn’t mean they decide them.
You could be born without the classic Type-A personality. This could mean if your environment encouraged it that you could be pretty lazy, unmotivated, and fail at many things you do...but this destiny is by no means decided. What it means is that you might have to take extra steps in setting up a supporting environment, but with effort you can be the morning person, go-getter, trend-setter, etc. that you WANT to be.
You could be born into a relatively overweight family with their genes that may predispose you to diabetes, obesity, and cravings-galore...but this future is NOT decided. YOU have the final say if that’s your life. YES it might be more difficult for you to lose weight, but you have the final say in how you structure your environment.
You may struggle to put on weight and build muscle. I know many guys out there struggle with this. First of all, know that most “idols” you look up to or guys on the cover of magazines are not doing it naturally (they’re changing their environment to fight their genes, too). This doesn’t mean you’re destined to be a miserable, lanky guy...you just might have to adjust your training and nutrition to optimize muscle growth.
So often, we credit our failures to our genetics. I’m VERY guilty of this. I was born with my mom’s body type...a lil’ thicker and more bottom heavy than top heavy. Does this mean I’m destined to be overweight and have no definition? NO. I let myself think this throughout all of college. “I’m just not meant to lose weight...it’s not in my genetics.” (does this sound familiar??) Then I started tracking my calories and realized I’m undereating and not eating enough of the right stuff...so I changed my nutrition and found the training best for me (see below). Within 12 weeks, people didn’t recognize me because I was happier, less depressed, shredded, and had a completely different body type. I used my genetics as a crutch, and it wasn’t until I let that identity slide did I start seeing my desired results.
Use genetics in your favor
I’ll give you an example of this. Let’s compare two Olympic athletes: Michael Phelps and Hicham El Guerrouj. As you likely know, Michael Phelps is arguably the best swimmer in history. If you don’t know, El Guerrouj is one of the best runners in history and holds two Olympic gold medals.
Here are some fun facts about these two athletes.
Michael Phelps (when competing) weighed ~195 lbs. and is 6’4”. El Guerrouj (when competing) weighed a nice and tiny 138 lbs. (40% lighter than Phelps) and is 5’9”.
But here’s a more fun fact...
They both wear the same length inseam on their pants.
What this means is that Phelps has a very long torso and relatively shorter legs while El Guerrouj has a shorter torso and longer legs.
Their genetics in this regard was pretty fixed. Phelps can’t magically shorten his torso and lengthen his legs and El Guerrouj can’t shorten his legs and lengthen his torso.
But what they can do is find the environment that SUPPORTS their genetics. Phelps probably wouldn’t be an Olympic runner, nor would El Guerrouj make a great swimmer.
Chinese weightlifters’ genetics make them pretty much the best Olympic lifters in history. They’re naturally built in a way that gives them an edge when it comes to moving some weight around... which is why you find them in the sport. They recognize this...and encourage athletes to join in the sport that is pretty much suited for them.
The same can be applied to you...whether this is in weight loss, muscle growth, your career, your relationships, etc.
Find the environment that gives you the edge.
I’m born into a pretty math-dominated family. My mom and my dad both excelled in science and math growing up. We found my dad’s report cards growing up...his only decent grades were in science and math.
This pretty much describes my childhood. I’m visual and do well with numbers. Until Apple, I had every friends’ phone number memorized and still have my childhood best friends’ numbers and addresses memorized. I was still good at other subjects like history and English...but I had to try a lot more because it wasn’t as natural.
So I chose a career in the health field (at first) and majored in Chemistry, the most math-centered science subject. Most of chemistry and math is a puzzle and problem solving...very numbers-based, which is why I was attracted to medicine and why I eventually became a nutrition coach and LOVE working with calories, macros, rate of weight loss, etc.
I CHOSE the career that ignited passion and happiness and suited my genetics. It wasn’t luck (well some of it was).
You can maximize your success by choosing the path that matches your genes. This is why adherence is one of the most important factors in your nutrition. It’s why not one nutrition plan is the same. It comes down to your personal genetics, dieting history, family history, eating patterns, etc. that will make you more likely to follow the nutrition plan.
I love Olympic lifting because they’re more technical movements and require some problem solving and puzzles...so I follow a training program that includes oly lifts. I’m still doing snatches and clean and jerks despite training for an Ironman...because that’s what keeps me motivated.
If you love cardio but need to incorporate lifting into your training routine, then do your lifts in circuits and supersets to get the heart rate up or do a metcon or HIIT after your main compound lift or simply join a CrossFit gym. If you love a pump, then add accessory work at high rep ranges with similar movement patterns to get that pump. If you just love lifting heavy, then include a heavy compound lift each day and use accessory work to cover your bases and other movement patterns.
How do you know where your strengths are and where do you start?
There are three typical factors that can help you find your “calling”:
Are you a morning person (determines when you should train)? Are you a procrastinator? Do you need accountability? Are you a naturally stressed person? Do you have cravings and binges? Do you have a sweet tooth? Are you Type A?
2. What comes easy to you
Ask yourself this question, “What do I do a bit better than other people?” For me, I was a freshman in a senior math class. I had seniors in high school asking for help (or just to do) on their homework. When I was in college, I was only in one chemistry class and my other classes were general electives (like philosophy). I found myself doing chemistry homework months in advance over my philosophy homework literally due the next day. I found that I wanted to be around people and not by myself. I found carb cycling to match my cravings and eating patterns and was the best way for me to cut weight. I found CrossFit and lifting to be easy to motivate myself to getting to the gym. Before CrossFit, I could go 2 weeks without going to the gym...because nothing gave me as much joy.
3. Trial and error
A lot of it is luck. I happened to start coaching CrossFit at the same time I was doing research on breastfeeding at the same time I started making nutrition and environment changes. You’re not going to find your calling immediately. If you think of the first two points, this could give you some sense of direction. From there, it’s just trying things and reflecting on them. If something doesn’t work, why not? What was it that didn’t work? When moving forward, you know to find options that don’t have that component to it. If something does work, what was it that make it so successful? GREAT! Now you know what you need to prioritize for next time.
Here’s where the conclusion comes to.
Genes don’t determine or decide your destiny...but they DO determine opportunity. Habits are easier to follow if they match your natural inclinations. Nothing with genetics is explicitly determined. You may be pre-disposed to where in order to change those habits or reality, you may have to put forth a bit more effort.
Resources and Coaching:
Online Coaching here.
[Free] Nutrition Guide here.
Recipe & Macro Guide here.