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Hundreds of genes discovered that directly influence our dietary choices

Scientists have identified nearly 500 genes that have a significant impact on our dietary choices. This large-scale exploration into diet and genetics signals a significant progression towards creating personalized nutritional strategies, aimed at enhancing health and mitigating disease, based on an individual’s genetic makeup.

The research was led by Dr. Joanne Cole, assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Informatics. 

“Some genes we identified are related to sensory pathways – including those for taste, smell, and texture – and may also increase the reward response in the brain,” said Dr. Cole.

These findings could hold the key to understanding individual food preferences at a genetic level, potentially enabling scientists to devise “sensory genetic profiles” that could guide personalized dietary recommendations.

Focus of the study

The monumental study was based on data gathered from the UK Biobank, which encompasses data from half a million people. 

The researchers employed a phenome-wide association study (PheWAS) to determine genes more tightly connected with diet than with health or lifestyle factors. PheWAS studies are a powerful tool in discerning associations between gene variants and a broad range of human traits and behaviors, including dietary choices.

The significant role of environmental factors such as cultural background, socioeconomic status, and accessibility to different types of food in shaping our dietary habits has long been acknowledged. 

However, Dr. Cole emphasized, “Because genetics plays a much smaller role in influencing dietary intake than all the environmental factors, we need to study hundreds of thousands of individuals to detect genetic influences amid the environmental factors. The data necessary to do this hasn’t been available until recently.”

The findings of the study will be presented by Dr. Cole at NUTRITION 2023, an annual event organized by the American Society for Nutrition in Boston.

How the research was conducted

A major hurdle in discerning diet-related genes is the complex web of interconnections between dietary habits and other elements, including health and socioeconomic factors. 

To overcome this challenge, the team applied computational methods to segregate direct genetic influences on diet from indirect ones, such as a gene influencing diabetes, which then prompts a person to limit their sugar intake.

The inclusion of detailed health and socioeconomic data in the UK Biobank, along with in-depth genetic information, was pivotal to the success of this approach. By examining individual genetic variants in relation to thousands of traits, the researchers were able to filter out indirect gene variants more closely associated with other factors.

What the researchers learned 

The analysis unveiled approximately 300 genes directly influencing the consumption of specific foods and nearly 200 genes linked to overall dietary patterns like fish or fruit consumption. 

“The study showed that dietary patterns tend to have more indirect genetic effects, meaning they were correlated with a lot of other factors,” said Dr. Cole. 

This emphasizes the importance of considering dietary choices in a broader context of other contributing factors to accurately understand their impact on human health.

Future research 

Looking forward, Dr. Cole plans to delve deeper into the newly identified diet-related genes to gain a better understanding of their functions and to discover more genes that directly influence dietary choices. 

The research opens numerous avenues for translational research, such as using genetic information to tailor the flavor profile of a diet designed for weight loss to increase adherence.

Another potential application of the findings is the personalization of food based on a person’s genetic predisposition. 

“If we know that a gene encoding an olfactory receptor in the nose increases a person’s liking of fruit and boosts the reward response in the brain, then molecular studies of this receptor could be used to identify natural or synthetic compounds that bind to it,” said Dr. Cole. “Then, we could see if adding one of those compounds to healthy foods makes those foods more appealing to that person.” 

This novel approach could revolutionize how we perceive and implement dietary recommendations, moving us closer to an era of truly personalized nutrition.

More about dietary choices 

Dietary choices are complex decisions influenced by an array of physiological, psychological, social, and cultural factors. Here is a closer look at some of these elements:

Physiological factors

Our body’s needs and individual metabolism largely dictate what we eat. Age, gender, body composition, and activity level all play a part in determining energy and nutrient requirements. For instance, growing children, athletes, or pregnant women have different dietary requirements compared to sedentary adults.

Genetic factors

As the study highlighted, certain genes linked to taste, smell, and texture perception can influence food preferences and dietary choices. Certain genetic variants are also known to impact our metabolic responses to food, including how we store fat or process sugars, contributing to predispositions for conditions like obesity or diabetes.

Psychological factors

Emotions, mood, and perceived stress can significantly affect our dietary choices. Some people may turn to comfort foods in times of stress or indulge in unhealthy eating habits due to depression or anxiety.

Socioeconomic factors

Income level, educational attainment, and occupational status can all impact dietary choices. Individuals from higher socioeconomic groups often have better access to high-quality, nutritious food and are more likely to have healthier dietary habits compared to those from lower socioeconomic groups.

Cultural factors

Cultural norms and traditions play a significant role in shaping dietary choices. Foods consumed commonly in certain cultures might be influenced by historical access to certain ingredients, religious beliefs, or traditional health beliefs.

Environmental factors

The food environment, including accessibility and availability of healthy (or unhealthy) food options, and marketing and advertising of food products also substantially shape dietary choices.

Understanding these different factors can help in the creation of better-targeted interventions for improving dietary habits at an individual and population level. For instance, strategies can range from personalized nutrition advice based on genetic makeup, to public health initiatives aimed at improving food environments and access to healthy food.


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