Did you know that your genes might be deciding your dinner?
In one of the first large studies of how genes relate to what we eat, scientists have found about 500 genes that seem to affect our food choices.
This is a big step towards using our DNA to create personalized nutrition plans for better health or disease prevention.
Genetic Taste Buds
“Some genes we found are connected to our senses—including taste, smell, and texture—and might also make food more rewarding,” says Joanne Cole, Ph.D., who led the research.
She’s an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“These genes could have a clear impact on whether someone likes a food or not. We could potentially use them to create sensory genetic profiles to fine-tune a person’s diet based on what foods they enjoy.”
Digging into DNA
For their study, the researchers used data from 500,000 people from the UK Biobank.
They conducted a special type of study, called a phenome-wide association study (PheWAS), which lets them find connections between specific gene variants and human behaviors, like what we eat.
“Our food choices are mostly influenced by things like our culture, income, and access to food,” says Cole.
“Genes have a smaller effect on what we eat, so we need to study hundreds of thousands of people to find genetic influences among all these other factors. We’ve only recently had the data to do this.”
Cole presented these findings at a big nutrition meeting in Boston in July 2023.
Untangling the Connections
One problem in finding diet-related genes is that what we eat is tied to many other factors, like health (like high cholesterol or body weight) and socioeconomic status.
To solve this, the researchers used computational methods to separate the direct effects of genetic variants on diet from indirect effects.
An example of an indirect effect would be a gene that impacts diabetes, and a person with diabetes needs to eat less sugar.
The study was possible because the UK Biobank contains not just detailed genetic information, but also health and socioeconomic data.
This allowed the researchers to test individual gene variants for connections with thousands of traits and then exclude the gene variants that were more strongly associated with other factors, like diabetes.
The researchers found about 300 genes directly linked to eating specific foods and almost 200 genes tied to dietary patterns, like eating a lot of fish or fruit.
“Our study showed that dietary patterns tend to have more indirect genetic effects, meaning they’re connected with many other factors,” says Cole.
“This shows how important it is to not study dietary patterns in isolation. The impact of a diet on human health can be completely influenced or confused by other factors.”
The Future of Food
Cole is now studying the newly discovered diet-related genes to better understand what they do and is also working to find more genes that directly influence food preferences.
One exciting possibility is using our genetics to adjust the flavor of a diet designed for weight loss to make it easier to stick with. It might also be possible to adjust foods to a person’s genetic tastes.
“For example, if we find that a gene related to smell increases a person’s enjoyment of fruit and makes it more rewarding, we could study this receptor to find natural or synthetic compounds that bind to it,” Cole explains.
“Then, we could see if adding one of those compounds to healthy foods makes those foods more appealing to that person.”
So next time you reach for an apple instead of an orange, remember that your genes might have made that choice for you!
If you care about nutrition, please read studies about how Mediterranean diet could protect your brain health, and the best time to take vitamins to prevent heart disease.
For more information about health, please see recent studies about plant nutrients that could help reduce high blood pressure, and these antioxidants could help reduce dementia risk.
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