The Genetic Diet: A New Way to Treat Obesity?

The roadmap of our lives is first laid out by our genes. Before environment, experiences and choices shape us, they define many of the parameters in which we’ll grow. Some can be unexpected: for instance, the tendency to sneeze in direct sunlight is an inherited trait, as is the ability to differentiate musical notes through “perfect pitch.” Long before we mapped the human genome in 2003, we looked to family history to understand the risks of inherited illnesses. In the nearly two decades since that remarkable accomplishment, our genes continue to reveal new insights. But can they influence the way we diet and control weight gain? A recent study indicates they might.

Nutrigenomics is the emerging science of tailoring our diets to best fit our genes. Still a young discipline, it’s grounded in the theory that by understanding our genetic makeup, we can make choices customized to our unique needs and proclivities. This can be as complex as adjusting vitamin intake to reflect the way your body processes them, or as simple as recognizing allergies and intolerances to avoid certain foods. Practitioners of nutrigenomics begin with a deep understanding of the patient’s genes, then create a uniquely tailored diet to reflect them. Until now, however, there has been little comprehensive research into its effects.

In an article reported in The Obesity Society’s research journal Obesity, a team from The University of Western Ontario has established for the first time that nutrigenomics can have a measurable impact on weight loss, especially in the short and medium-term.

By comparing the results from two groups: one who underwent the “gold-standard” of today’s weight-loss regimens — clinically supervised dieting, exercise and other lifestyle changes — versus one who underwent the same regimen plus a nutrigenomic intervention, it was revealed that the second group’s results were considerably better after three and six months. By twelve months, the two groups’ results were similar, but the study shows that in cases where relatively rapid weight loss is required, such as in the lead up to a medical procedure, nutrigenomics can be a valuable introduction.

What can this tell us about the future of obesity treatment? Although it’s still early days, the study does show that there are still many factors beyond diet and exercise that influence how we control our weight. A better understanding of genetic differences can empower doctors to prescribe more relevant treatments or identify the reasons why certain approaches may or may not work

In the end, it’s all about listening to our bodies in new ways and using what we hear to make better decisions. There has never been a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling obesity, but studies like this one show us that we can continue to be more precise, relevant and effective in the ways we customize treatment. And as in-depth genetic testing becomes more available to patients and doctors, I’m excited to see how it can benefit how we work to improve outcomes for those struggling with weight loss.