‘Genetic sweet tooth’ may come with lower body fat

People with the “sweet tooth” gene variation of FGF21 tend to have less body fat than others, new research shows. That’s surprising because past research found that they have a particular sweet tooth and eat more sugar than others.

“This is just a small piece of the puzzle describing the connection between diet and sugar intake and the risk of obesity and diabetes,” says study author Niels Grarup, associate professor from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research at the University of Copenhagen.

But the effects associated with the genetic variation are not all positive, the new study shows. The genetic variation is connected with slightly increased blood pressure and more fat around the waist than the hips—that is, more of an “apple shape.”

The study, conducted with researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School, appears in Cell Reports.

The researchers base their conclusions on health information from more than 450,000 individuals who have allowed their data to be recorded in the UK Biobank. It includes blood samples, questionnaires on diet, and genetic data, among other things.

“Now that so many people are involved in the study, it gives our conclusions a certain robustness. Even though the difference in the amount of body fat or blood pressure level is only minor depending on whether or not the person has this genetic variation or not, we are very confident that the results are accurate. Around 20 percent of the European population has this genetic predisposition,” says Grarup.

Some of our muscles can ‘taste’ sugar

This new knowledge about people with a “genetic sweet tooth” is mainly important in connection with the development of drugs and future research. Researchers are currently trying to determine whether it is possible to target or replace FGF21 using drugs in order to treat for obesity and diabetes.

“Due to its connection with sugar, FGF21 constitutes a potential target in the treatment of for example obesity and diabetes. This research helps us to understand the underlying mechanisms of the hormone and to predict its effects and side effects,” says Grarup.

Funding for the study comes from the European Research Council, the National Institute of Health, and the Novo Nordisk Foundation, among others.

Source: University of Copenhagen