A healthy diet can offset genetic risk for obesity

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A healthy diet can offset genetic risk for obesity

Researchers find that people who are genetically predisposed to weight gain could benefit the most from a healthy diet

A study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) suggests that long term healthy eating could lead to greater weight loss in people who are genetically predisposed to obesity than people who aren’t, helping to counter the genetic risk.

Researchers from Harvard University and Tulane University used the data for over 14,000 people in two large studies looking at genetics, lifestyle and health. They looked at the genes involved in being overweight, as well as changes in diet and changes in weight every four years.

Unsurprisingly, they found that after 20 years, eating a healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables, nuts and whole grains and low in salt, sugary drinks, alcohol and red and processed meats, was linked to lower body weight. More interestingly, the effect was greater in people who had a higher genetic risk of obesity compared to those with a low genetic risk.

Genetics, lifestyle and environment all play a role in weight gain and obesity. Previous research has shown that diets high in fats and sugars make weight gain more likely in people with a high genetic risk. The current study suggests that the effect of genes is small, and that a healthy diet can help to offset the risk. 

The authors acknowledge that this study can’t be used to draw firm conclusions because they didn’t look at physical activity and everyone in the study was from European descent. Even so, they argue that the findings highlight the importance of a healthy diet in preventing weight gain, particularly in people who are genetically predisposed to obesity.

They state that “genetic predisposition is no barrier to successful weight management and no excuse for weak health and policy responses”. They say governments and populations must act to promote healthy eating and make healthy foods universally available.

Katharine Jenner, CEO of Blood Pressure UK, comments: “This is an encouraging study because it suggests that even if you’re genetically predisposed to becoming overweight, weight gain isn’t inevitable and weight loss isn’t impossible – as long as there is good availability of healthy food and drink. Looking after your weight can seem like a battle but it can help to know that losing just a small amount can have an effect on your blood pressure, which can help protect you from health problems in the future."

Professor Graham MacGregor, Chairman of Blood Pressure UK, says: “This study shows the importance of a healthy diet which is low in salt and sugar no matter what your genetic makeup. We support the authors in their call for Governments to take responsibility in making healthy diets available and affordable to everyone. High blood pressure causes half of all strokes and heart attacks and costs the NHS over £2.1 billion every year and is completely unnecessary.”

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Read the full study in the BMJ 

Read the editorial comment in the BMJ

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