The weight in your DNA

Put several people on the same weight loss regimen. Some will lose it alright, but there would be unlucky others who would gain more weight Why? It’s all in one’s DNA

At a time when everyday we are bombarded with new formulas on weight loss, it is easy to get confused on which programme can work for you. Cecilia Nyanchao, 34, has struggled with weight issues for a decade now. When she started her weight loss journey, like most people, she thought it was a simple mathematics equation.

“I assumed that if I just ate less food, counted my caloric intake, and burned fat more than I was consuming, I would shed off the kilos,” narrates Cecilia.

However, after years of trying one fitness and weight loss regimen after another, she could not achieve her goal. Cecilia is just one among many people who have tried various ways to lose weight unsuccessfully. Enter another idea that promises to remove the guesswork from dieting. Known as nutritional genomics or shortened as nutrigenomics, research has revealed that a person’s DNA and diet choices are interwoven in ways that mitigate or increase an individual’s risk for obesity, heart disease, and other health complications.

Researchers say by understanding the genetics that predispose a person to reacting well or poorly to different dietary components, nutrigenomics should be able to answer the ‘low carb or low fat’ question, along with countless others. In a study done in Europe, for example, around one in five Europeans carry a gene making them more likely to eat high-carbohydrate food. Another gene, called MTIF3, has been linked to increased body size and also to the regaining of weight after dieting. And a variant of the “Fat Mass and Obesity-Associated gene (FTO), which controls appetite, has been dubbed the ‘fat gene’, because it’s linked to impulse eating and weight gain.

With this information, experts formulate a diet tailored to one’s genetic make-up, recommending meal plans, portion sizes and even exercise regimen. There are 180 variations of meal plans based on common regimes including high protein, low carb, high fat, high Omega-3 and Mediterranean diets, and may be customised depending on how the body reacts to certain foods and whether the goal is to lose or maintain weight.

“I have been working on this for almost 30 years,” says José Ordovás, , a professor of nutrition and genetics at Tufts University, US, when asked about nutrigenomics and personalised nutrition by Medium, a US-based online publication. “But the downs were mostly about the lack of technology needed for looking at the genome of every individual.”

He says those technological barriers have mostly been cleared, and he and many other researchers are now working to identify the precise genetic traits associated with diet success or failure. “We now have examples where, depending on your genes, you can have a diet relatively high in saturated fat and not be negatively affected for increased risk of obesity or heart disease,” he says. “But we’re still at the beginning of the race in terms of personalised nutrition.”

In Kenya, however, this method is still in its testing phase. Henry Ng’ethe, a human nutrition and dietics expert, describes nutrigenomics as the study of how genes and nutrients associate with each other and their interaction on metabolic processes. However, since our bodies are different and the way we metabolise nutrients is different as a result of many factors that include type of food taken, body needs, disease status and so on, it is hard to tie it to the DNA make-up.

“The studies on the relationship between the DNA make up and nutrition biosynthesis are scanty and inconclusive, therefore it’s hard to tie them. There haven’t been clinical trials to show these kinds of diets work, and a 2015 meta-analysis found the evidence is seriously scant,” Ng’ethe who is also the national Chairman of Nutrition Association of Kenya, explains.

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