How kids with ‘overweight genes’ can lose pounds

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Children who are genetically predisposed to being overweight can still lose weight by changing their diet and exercise habits, a study of about 750 children shows.

In 2016, 124 million children and adolescents worldwide had obesity. The new study examines how genetics affect children and young people’s ability to lose excess weight.

“We are trying to understand the genetic driving force behind overweight and whether this force also makes it impossible for some to lose weight,” says Theresia Maria Schnurr, a postdoc at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research at the University of Copenhagen and one of the authors of the paper, which appears in Obesity.

“We show that a high genetic predisposition to overweight during childhood in fact had no influence on whether the children reacted to lifestyle intervention compared to children with low genetic predisposition to overweight. The 15 genetic variants we have studied are common in the population and are the ones that in general increase a child’s risk of becoming overweight,” Schnurr says.

Snacks, sleep, and social activity

Researchers wanted to determine the influence of specific gene variants on the ability of children and adolescents to lose weight. Therefore, they studied the 15 specific gene variants implicated in childhood obesity and which are common in the population.

The findings show that the variants—except for a rare mutation in the MC4R gene—don’t predict whether children and adolescents can lose weight when they change lifestyle.

Researchers examined 754 children and adolescents with overweight and obesity. The median age was 11.6 years. The researchers mapped the genetic profile of all participants and then calculated a genetic risk score for childhood overweight for each participant based on the 15 genetic variants.

“Large parts of the population [believe] that when you have problematic genes it is game over.”

All the children carried one or more of the 15 genetic variants associated with increased risk for obesity and overweight during childhood. To determine whether a genetic predisposition for overweight affected the children and adolescents’ ability to lose weight the children had to implement a series of lifestyle changes.

The children followed a treatment protocol developed at Holbæk Hospital that centers around the family with behavioral lifestyle changes. For example, they had to change their diet, means of transportation, physical activity, sedentary activity, amount of sleep, consumption of snacks and sweet things, and social activities.

It really works

The intervention lasted six to 24 months. Subsequently, the researchers followed up on the treatment and found that the lifestyle changes affected the weight of the participants, despite their genetic disposition for overweight and obesity.

“Large parts of the population [believe] that when you have problematic genes it is game over. That is why it is very important we send a clear message that even though you have a genetic sensitivity this treatment can help people,” says author Jens-Christian Holm, doctor and head of the Children’s Obesity Clinic, Holbæk Hospital

“We have discovered that it does not matter whether the children and adolescents have an increased genetic risk score or not. They can respond to treatment just as well. This means our treatment is efficient despite carrying common obesity risk genes,” Holm says.

“It gives hope to people with obesity and obesity related complications such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, and fatty liver that we can in fact help them.”

Innovation Fund Denmark, Region Zealand Health Scientific Research Foundation, the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the research initiative Target, the Danish Diabetes Academy, and the Copenhagen Graduate School of Health and Medical Sciences funded the work.

Source: University of Copenhagen