Genes and Weight: Emerging Research

How much do our genes affect our weight? And if we have a genetic predisposition to obesity, what can we do about it? The emerging field of nutrigenomics is providing answers to this complex question.

The latest research looks at the relationship between genes and weight, and offers clues for what we can do to stay our healthiest. A study recently published in the British Journal of Nutrition looked at the the association between variants of a certain gene and weight gain in children. Additionally, the researchers investigated whether diet had an effect on this association. The study included over 1,000 children aged 4 to 11 years and took place in Brazil.

While there are many (over 430) genes that are associated with obesity, the gene that has the biggest influence on weight gain is the Fat-Mass and Obesity-associated gene (FTO). This gene regulates how fat is stored. It also plays a role in our food choices. The study confirmed that those carrying certain variants of the gene were more likely to be obese. However, only children who had both the variants of the gene (genetic predisposition) and who exceeded their energy needs would become obese. This underlines the important interplay between our diet and our genes. Just because we carry a gene that is linked to being overweight, does not mean we are destined to be so.

The research design also looked at specific dietary intakes associated with obesity. One of the main observations was that weight gain was more likely in children who consumed more calories from protein. Also, children who ate fewer calories from unsaturated fats and more from saturated fats were more likely to gain excess weight. The authors stressed that even with the FTO gene present, the main drivers of obesity among children are lifestyle factors.

Another study published in the British Medical Journal in February 2018 concluded that individuals with a high genetic risk for obesity would benefit particularly well from diet interventions, and could prevent excess weight gain by following healthy dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet.

This research is vital as it highlights how we can work against a genetic predisposition for overweight by making simple nutritional tweaks.

Childhood obesity is a growing issue in the US. Portion sizes and our consumption of processed foods have sharply increased in the past few decades. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position paper on nutrition guidance for healthy children recommends a number of specific ways to improve the health and nutrition of our kids. A few highlights include:

  • Help children to eat more fiber – the best sources are vegetables and whole grain foods.
  • Reduce portion sizes, especially when eating out
  • Eat whole fruit (more fiber!) instead of drinking juice
  • Reduce fat (particularly saturated fat) intakeAdditionally, plenty of physical activity – the recommended amount for children is 60 minutes every day – is essential for a healthy lifestyle and optimal muscle and bone development.So, what action should you take? Here are three things you can do today to help your kids be healthier:

  1. Reduce juice intake by incorporating fruit-infused water instead of juice – a fun way to do this is to add a few slices of your child’s favorite fruit to a pitcher of water!
  2. Go to the grocery store with your kids and pick out a new vegetable to try this week. Make the veggie serving half the plate.
  3. Limit saturated fat intake by avoiding too many animal protein sources. Incorporate a small handful of nuts or seeds as a snack for a healthy source of fats, and swap out the meat for beans or lentils at least a few times a week.

Follow Mascha Davis MPH, RDN on Facebook or at https://nomadistanutrition.com/