The Higher Your Genetic Risk for Obesity, the Greater Your Benefits of a Healthy Diet

by Chris Centeno, MD /

If you have the genes that code for risk of obesity and you’re over 35, you know it. You’ve likely struggled with your weight for a while and you just seem to have to work harder than the next guy or gal to keep it off. Now, new research shows that you may be the best candidate to use diet to protect your health.

Defining a Healthy Diet

Defining a healthy diet is much simpler said than done. There are so many diet philosophies out there and so many adamant supporters and steadfast critics for all of them. So maybe the point shouldn’t be necessarily to define a healthy diet but to determine which healthy diet works best for you. Perhaps the reason there are so many different opinions on what diets work and what diets don’t is because none of our bodies are exactly the same. Perhaps the reason your body responds well to a higher-fat ketogenic diet, for example, and not a more carb-fat-balanced Mediterranean diet while your friend’s body experiences the opposite lies in your genetic makeup.

A new study even suggests that those with a higher genetic risk for obesity have greater benefits from a healthy diet than their lower-genetic-risk counterparts. Let’s take a look.

Healthy Diet Benefits Greater in Those Genetically Prone to Obesity?

The new study was an aggregation of two health studies consisting of over 14,000 subjects (8,828 women, 5,218 men). The purpose was to determine if there was a difference in how subjects who had a high genetic risk for obesity responded to a healthy diet compared to those who had a low genetic risk for obesity. Researchers recorded body mass index (BMI) and weight every 4 years for 20 years. Genetic risk was determined based on a scoring system (0–154) using the 77 genetic variants known to be associated with BMI. Subjects scoring high on the scale were considered to be a high genetic risk for obesity and vice versa for low. Diet patterns were measured based on subject questionnaires using three separate scoring systems.

The result? Increases in the quality of diet were, understandably, associated with decreases in weight and BMI. The interesting finding, however, was that in subjects whose diet improved and weight and BMI lowered, the benefits were much greater for those at a higher genetic risk for obesity when compared to those at a lower genetic risk. In other words, the higher your genetic risk for obesity, the greater your benefits of a healthy diet!

It wasn’t within the scope of the study to determine why those at a higher genetic risk seemed to fare better, but more studies are likely to follow.

The Benefits of a Healthy Diet

Whether we fall in the genetic low-risk or high-risk category for obesity, or somewhere in between, we all benefit from a healthy diet. Keep in mind that just because you may have a higher genetic risk for obesity, this doesn’t necessarily translate to actually being obese. Those with a higher genetic risk are typically more susceptible to becoming obese when their lifestyle consists of an unhealthy diet and a lack of physical activity. However, someone with a high genetic risk for obesity, for example, may be healthy and trim due to good dietary and fitness choices, while someone with a lower genetic risk for obesity may be unhealthy and obese due to poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle.

So what are some of the potential benefits of a healthy diet? Let’s review a few:

While there are plenty of healthy diets to choose from out there, one diet you don’t want to fall prey to is the low-fat diet. The “Seven Countries Study” that defined decades of the American heart-healthy diet has long-since been shown to be based on flawed science. The reality is, our bodies need plenty of healthy fats to properly function. (Read more details on this at the link above.)

The upshot? If you’ve struggled to keep your weight down, you may have the genes that benefit the most from a clean, healthy diet. So pay attention to what you eat, as while that burger and fries may not hurt your skinny neighbor, it may just do you in!

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Chris Centeno, MD

Regenexx Founder

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications.
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