We all have those one or two foods that are guilty pleasures.
We know they’re not good for us. We muster up all of our willpower just to avoid them.
Then, in a moment of weakness, we succumb to the little voice in our brain telling us to eat all the donuts. Or Skittles. Or chips. And soon we find ourselves wrapped up in a cycle of guilt.
But, results of a new study suggest we’re not completely at fault, and that gene variants that affect the way our brain works may be the reason. The new research could lead to the development of strategies to empower people to enjoy, and ultimately stick to their optimal diets.
Silvia Berciano, a predoctoral fellow at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, presented the new findings in Chicago at the American Society for Nutrition Scientific Sessions during the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting in April.
“Most people have a hard time modifying their dietary habits, even if they know it is in their best interest,” said Berciano. “This is because our food preferences and ability to work toward goals or follow plans affect what we eat and our ability to stick with diet changes. Ours is the first study describing how brain genes affect food intake and dietary preferences in a group of healthy people.”
Although previous research has identified genes involved with behaviors seen in eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, little is known about how natural variation in these genes could affect eating behaviors in healthy people. Gene variation is a result of subtle DNA differences among individuals that make each person unique.
For the study, researchers analyzed the genetics of 818 men and women of European ancestry and gathered information about their diet using a questionnaire. They found that the genes studied played a significant role in a person’s food choices and dietary habits. For example, higher chocolate intake and a larger waist size was associated with certain forms of the oxytocin receptor gene, and an obesity-associated gene played a role in vegetable and fiber intake. They also observed that certain genes were involved in salt and fat intake.
The new findings could be used to inform precision-medicine approaches that help minimize a person’s risk for common diseases—such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer—by tailoring diet-based prevention and therapy to the specific needs of an individual.
“The knowledge gained through our study will pave the way to better understanding of eating behavior and facilitate the design of personalized dietary advice that will be more amenable to the individual, resulting in better compliance and more successful outcomes,” said Berciano.
Similar investigations will be conducted in other groups of people with different characteristics and ethnicities to better understand the applicability and potential impact of these findings. The researchers also want to investigate whether the identified genetic variants associated with food intake are linked to increased risks for disease or health problems.
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