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Hundreds of genes identified that directly influence what we eat

While the old adage “you are what you eat” may be true, a new study suggests that what we eat also has something to do with who we are, genetically speaking. A team of scientists led by the University of Colorado School of Medicine has recently pinpointed approximately 500 genes which seem to influence what we eat and have a direct impact on an individual’s food preferences

Sensory genetic profiles 

The researchers believe that understanding these genes could pave the way for personalized nutrition plans tailored to enhance health or stave off diseases.

“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 lead author Joanne Cole, an assistant professor of Biomedical Informatics department at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. 

“Because some of these genes may have clear paths toward influencing whether someone likes a food or not, they could potentially be used to create sensory genetic profiles for fine-tuning a person’s dietary recommendations based on foods they like to eat.”

Studying the genes tied to eating

For this investigation, the research team analyzed data from the UK Biobank, which consists of details from 500,000 participants. Through a phenome-wide association study, they aimed to pinpoint genes that had a stronger connection with dietary habits rather than other health or lifestyle aspects. 

“The foods we choose to eat are largely influenced by environmental factors such as our culture, socioeconomic status, and food accessibility,” Cole explained. 

“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.”

How the research was conducted

To separate the direct impacts of genetic variations on diet from indirect ones, such as distinguishing a genetic predisposition to diabetes from the subsequent reduced sugar intake due to the condition, the team employed computational techniques.

The rich genetic, health, and socioeconomic data from the UK Biobank enabled the researchers to scrutinize individual genetic markers for links with a plethora of traits. 

What the researchers learned

The experts found about 300 genes associated with specific food consumption, and nearly 200 genes connected to broader dietary patterns, like general fish or fruit intake. 

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

“This shows how important it is to not study dietary patterns in a vacuum, because the eating pattern’s impact on human health may be completely mediated or confounded by other factors.”

Looking ahead, Cole envisions exploring the possibility of genetically tailored diets to enhance weight loss, the central question being: Can nutrition experts use genetic data to tailor the taste aspects of a weight loss regimen to ensure better compliance?

These findings were presented at the Annual Conference of the American Society for Nutrition in Boston and will soon undergo peer review for publication.

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