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Posted on 03 Apr 2019 Views 2828 Comments 23

The genetics of obesity: The FTO gene

With headlines estimating that two-thirds of the population is ‘dieting’ at any one time, many people are searching for the solution that works for them. Why, however do some people tend to find it so much harder to lose weight than others? This article considers the role that genetics may have in predisposing to obesity.

Genetics is the study of our genes. Taking you back to science lessons at school, a gene is a part of the biological code that you are built from. Half our genes come from our mother and half from our father. Variations can happen in our genes – these are tiny changes to the genetic code that may affect things like the severity of illness we experience or the way the body responds to treatments.

Genetics GeneResearch over the last decade or so has identified over 100 genes or gene groups linked to obesity. These can affect things like our eating habits, how easily we store fat, our metabolism and how our appetite is regulated.

One of these genes, called FTO (which stands for ‘fat mass and obesity related protein’) was originally discovered in 2007 and is involved in appetite regulation. This gene has the largest effect on body mass index (BMI) than any other known gene. All of us have the FTO gene, but some of us will have inherited different forms with one or two small changes. Studies suggest that one small change in this gene (called a single variant) means you are 25% more likely to be obese. People with two small changes in this gene (called a double variant) are 50% more likely to be obese.

How do I know if I have FTO variants?

If you did want to find out your genetic risk status, there are various companies that offer genetic testing to include FTO variants. We do not recommend a particular company. Different tests have different sensitivity and specificity, so it’s always best to do your research when looking into this.

If I have the double variant, what does this mean?

Some research suggests that people with the double risk FTO variant may choose to eat foods higher in fat and sugar, rather than healthier foods. The genetic variations are linked to changes in the brain, making it slightly less sensitive to appetite hormones released from gut and fat cells, affecting how hungry we feel. Put simply, if you have FTO risk variants, you may feel hungrier - the brain thinks that you have less fat in your body than you actually do, and that you ate slightly less than you actually did. These factors can result in small increases in food intake, and hence weight over time.

During a TV experiment for BBC Horizon in 2016, they showed they tested a group of dieters to see if they had the double variant and then observed them eating a meal. They found that if people actually knew they had the double variant, they were more likely to avoid the higher calorie foods. So, by simply knowing their genetic risk factors may be enough to encourage change.

Take home points

  • The true picture of obesity is very complex. It is likely that there are many genes associated with obesity, some of them still unidentified, and that they work in different ways. We know that genetics is only a small part of the picture and many other factors influence obesity, including diet, lifestyle, habits, environment and childhood.
  • Dr Giles Yeo, who is involved in research around the genetics of obesity paraphrases that the good news is that having FTO gene variants is like having a bad hand of poker – if you play your cards right, you can still ‘win’ (and lose weight). In fact, if you do have FTO variants, you still have the same ability to lose weight as people without it – although it may be more of a challenge.
  • Finding your motivation to lose weight is key – this will be individual to you. It may a newly diagnosed health condition that suddenly motivates you, or the realisation you have hit a certain all-time-high weight. Whatever yours is, grab hold of it and monitor your changes. If you’ve yet to find your motivation, keep searching, as you might find you struggle more to lose weight without it.
  • Never under-estimate the power of exercise – there is some good news! Studies suggest that exercise can mitigate against risk of obesity by 30% for those with the double variant who are exercising regularly compared to those no risk variants. This means that if you do have FTO variants, regular exercise may enable you to lose more weight than someone who doesn’t have the FTO variant.
  • Annemarie Aburrow RD BSc (Hons) PGDipIf you’ve started your weight loss journey, keep going! You can succeed! If you have a temporary relapse, pick yourself up and start again. The Slim & Save website, customer care team and social media pages have lots of great information, support and encouragement to help you keep going.

Whats your thoughts on genetic testing, do you think this could be the solution to our ever growing obesity problem? Leave your comments below to be in with a chance to win a Slim & Save Variety Bar Pack worth £36.99 Winning comment will be chosen on Tuesday 9th April at 4 pm!.

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Comments on The genetics of obesity: The FTO gene
Tina-Maria Bird 08/04/2019 21:43
I do believe that In some people it is the genetics but with most people is the type of foods they eat . Years ago when food was scarce most people ate fresh fruit and home grown veg . They had to watch what they ate or they wouldn’t have enough to last . Now people just buy everything in bags from the supermarket which have a lot of chemicals in . There are too many fast food chains these days. Also not many people used to have cars years ago so had to walk everywhere. Now people just jump in their cars even to go to the local shop .
Aimee Summers 08/04/2019 18:00
Whilst I agree there is most probably a genetic link to variants which cause desensitisation to appetite cues, I also believe there may be a genetic link to being incapable of losing fat readily. I do not eat huge portions, I eat well and healthily when not following this plan. On any given plan my maximum weight loss is extremely stunted in comparison to other people following the same plan. For example, on S&S I may lose 3lbs in my first week, however consequent weeks will lose a maximum of 1lb, If at all. My thyroid is 'normal', I work hard, exercise in moderation dependant on what eating plan I am following, I am a health professional so extremely aware of the consequences of poor diet. For me there is no consistent reward whether I eat 1200 or 600 calories. That would seem to be physically impossible and I have stopped confiding this to anyone as I am more often than not met with disbelieving, sneering comments. Indeed, it would seem impossible that an educated health conscious person like myself could fail to lose weight on calorie controlled/restricted regimes, but I would challenge any researcher to determine what factors predispose me to this vicious cycle of weight loss disappointment.
AIMEE Summers 08/04/2019 17:57
Whilst I agree there is most probably a genetic link to variants which cause desensitisation to appetite cues, I also believe there may be a genetic link to being incapable of losing fat readily. I do not eat huge portions, I eat well and healthily when not following this plan. On any given plan my maximum weight loss is extremely stunted in comparison to other people following the same plan. For example, on S&S I may lose 3lbs in my first week, however consequent weeks will lose a maximum of 1lb, If at all. My thyroid is 'normal', I work hard, exercise in moderation dependant on what eating plan I am following, I am a health professional so extremely aware of the consequences of poor diet. For me there is no consistent reward whether I eat 1200 or 600 calories. That would seem to be physically impossible and I have stopped confiding this to anyone as I am more often than not met with disbelieving, sneering comments. Indeed, it would seem impossible that an educated health conscious person like myself could fail to lose weight on calorie controlled/restricted regimes, but I would challenge any researcher to determine what factors predispose me to this vicious cycle of weight loss disappointment.
Maria Johnson 06/04/2019 13:53
That’s a really interesting read but I do also believe genetics do play a huge part and I believe it’s harder to lose weight then some people and I believe that some people put weight on so much quicker then others such as slim / skinny ppl eat what they want and never put on weight which is when I say “ Jesus all I have to do is smell a donut and I put a stone on
Louise Ross 06/04/2019 09:05
I think times have changed but our diet and exercise hasn't. I agree that genetics has a part to play, it's obvious when you look at families, for instance in my family my dad's side were tall and slender and my mum's side short and fat, my sister is tall and slender and eats rubbish, never exercises and until I found SnS I was short and fat, now I'm slimmer than ever and although I'll never get taller I will be pleased not to be the fat one ever again. The problem is when people accept genetics as an excuse; know that it's going to be harder for you but conquer your genes, you can do it.
Rach holdsworth 06/04/2019 07:43
Mmmm a difficult one. It would.be nice to think that I'm overweight and it's not my fault but a lot of it boils down to choices which sns are showing me how to do ... 3 stone down 3 stone to goooooo
Jade stocker 05/04/2019 15:04
It would be lovely to find out as all the woman in my family are over weight and the men are all tall and slender.
I have spent many years on many different healthy eating plans designed by doctor gym referral scheme with personal trainers through doctor's and nothing has worked as well as slim and save . But why do I have to have such restrictions on what I can and can't eat because I only look at a chocolate bis hit and the weight jumps on so would be a really good idea to find out exactly why.
Kimberley Mortimer 05/04/2019 14:51
I would be interested in knowing if I have a varient. I always make poor choices and then am hungry throughout the day. Whilst knowing doesn't offer an instant 'cure' it would certainly be helpful in determining other factors.
Liz Thompson 04/04/2019 19:51
Genes definitely play a part in the struggle. BUT, it's not just about genes. Your own willpower, determination and perseverance play a massive part.
If testing for genetic unbalance solved the problem and took a whole lot of WEIGHT off the NHS then great.
If it gives the result but no resolution then there's little point.
We are all different. Whether we're lazy, greedy, mentally ill, ignorant to good nutrition advice or simply love food.. the list goes on.
Just live the best life you can. Be willing to put in the effort to change if you want to. At the end of the day only one person can make it happen and that is YOU!
Love who you are and change if you don't.
Samantha Hunt 04/04/2019 18:39
Beyond inheriting a direct genetic predisposition to be overweight, we may also indirectly inherit other habits around food from our parents or our friends growing up that may have affected their weight, such as eating large portions, not making time to be active, drinking sugary drinks, eating too often, and indulging in too many snacks high in sugar and fat. The way I see it is anybody who overeats will be obese and anybody who doesn’t eat will be anorexic so yes genetics are important but so are influences in our life’s!

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