How genetic inheritance can influence you’re eating behavior
A team of researchers from Massachusetts Hospital, Boston University and other institutions have identified more than twenty genetic regions that can have effects on food consumption. Investigators hope the discovery will indicate new treatment strategies to reduce the obesity epidemic.
The brain is influenced by various signals that affect eating behavior and regulate the body’s energy balance – for example, by changing appetite and energy intake in response to blood levels of key metabolic hormones and nutrients. Therefore, the genetic variation of these signals can lead to the feeling of hunger and extreme obesity.
“People with obesity and diabetes are often stigmatized because they make unhealthy food choices. Although food intake is shaped by several social, demographic, religious or political factors, previous studies have shown that inherited individual differences contribute to what, when why or how much we eat, “says co-author Dr. Jordi Merino, associate researcher at the Unit of Diabetes and the Center for Genomic Medicine at MGH and instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“These studies are beginning to identify brain regions and molecular processes that influence food consumption, but there has been limited research in humans to identify the molecular fingerprints that underlie variable food choice behavior,” Merino continues.
To find new perspectives, Merino and colleagues performed a genetic analysis and examined food consumption in 282,271 participants of European descent. To date, this is the largest study examining the influence of genetic factors on food intake.
The team identified 26 genetic regions associated with an increased preference for foods containing more fat, protein or carbohydrates, and these regions were enriched for genes expressed in the brain. “Downstream computational analyzes have identified specific subtypes of specialized neurons distributed in the central nervous system that are receptive to proteins, fats or carbohydrates, and, when activated, may explain why people are more likely to eat fatty foods,” protein or carbohydrates in a larger amount,” says Merino.
The researchers also found that two main groups of genetic variants were associated differently with obesity and coronary heart disease.
“The joint analysis of the intake of fats, proteins and carbohydrates, helped to define more homogeneous subgroups of genetic variants characterized by specific nutritional profiles and different metabolic footprints,” says co-author Chloé Sarnowski.
The discovery of these genetic variants can be used in future analyzes – such as Mendelian randomization, a causal inference approach – to determine whether the composition of the diet is causally linked to metabolic and other diseases. “Although we know that the composition of the diet is related to diseases, the causal link is more difficult to prove,” says lead author Dr. Josée Dupuis.
Current and future findings will also lead to a better biological understanding of why food consumption behavior differs among people and could provide new avenues for both the prevention and treatment of obesity and other metabolic diseases.
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