The discovery of hundreds of genes that directly influence what we choose to eat paves the way for personalized healthy diet plans, say scientists.
They believe new insights into the genetic basis for food preferences could help improve nutrition on an individual basis.
In one of the first large-scale studies of genes related to diet, researchers uncovered almost 500 genes that appear to directly influence the foods we eat.
They say their findings represent an important step toward using a person’s genetics to develop precision nutrition strategies that help improve health or prevent disease.
Research team leader Dr. Joanne Cole told South West News Service, “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.
“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.”
The American research team used the UK Biobank, which contains data from 500,000 people, to perform a phenome-wide association study (PheWAS) that identified genes more strongly associated with diet than with any health or lifestyle factor.
Cole, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said, “The foods we choose to eat are largely influenced by environmental factors such as our culture, socio-economic status, and food accessibility.
“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.”
She explained that one challenge in identifying diet-related genes is that what people eat correlates with many other factors, including health factors such as high cholesterol or body weight and even socio-economic status.
In the new study, the research team applied computational methods to “tease out” direct effects of genetic variants impacting diet and separate those from indirect effects — such as ones where a gene impacts diabetes and having diabetes requires a person to eat less sugar.
The UK Biobank not only contains in-depth genetic information but also detailed health and socio-economic data, allowing the researchers to test individual genetic variants for associations with thousands of traits and then eliminate indirect gene variants that were more strongly associated with other factors, such as diabetes.
Analysis revealed around 300 genes directly associated with eating specific foods and just under 200 genes linked to dietary patterns which group various foods together, such as overall fish intake or fruit consumption.
Said Cole, “The study showed that dietary patterns tend to have more indirect genetic effects, meaning they were correlated with a lot of other factors.
“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.”
She is studying the newly identified diet-related genes to better understand their function while also working to identify even more genes that directly influence food preferences.
Cole is also interested in studying whether using a person’s genetics to adapt the flavor profile of a diet designed for weight loss could improve adherence.
She believes it may also be possible to use the new insights to tailor foods to a person’s genetic predisposition.
Cole added, “If we know that a gene encoding an olfactory receptor in the nose increases a person’s liking of fruit and boosts the reward response in the brain, then molecular studies of this receptor could be used to identify natural or synthetic compounds that bind to it.
“Then, we could see if adding one of those compounds to healthy foods makes those foods more appealing to that person.”
She presented the findings at Nutrition 2023, the annual flagship meeting of the American Society for Nutrition in Boston, Massachusetts.