Genetic testing for obesity risk does not discourage people from trying to lose weight —instead, it may help reduce how much they blame themselves for their weight problems, according to a small new study.
Research has shown that genes influence a person’s risk of becoming overweight and one gene, called FTO, appears to have the greatest effect. The “A” variant of the gene is associated with a greater risk of weight gain, while the “T” variant of the gene is associated with a lower risk.
One in two people has at least one copy of the A variant. People with two A variants — one from their mother and one from their father — are 70 percent more likely to become obese than those with two T variants, according to the study authors at University College London (UCL).
Researchers have access to a genetic test for FTO variants, but the test is not commercially available. Among experts, there’s debate about how people would react to getting results of the FTO genetic test. Some believe that such knowledge would help motivate people to manage their weight, while others think it would make people feel there was nothing they could do about their weight.
In this study, researchers assessed how 18 people responded to having the FTO genetic test. The male and female participants, who ranged in weight from underweight to obese, were enthusiastic about getting their genetic test results, according to the study in a recent issue of the Journal of Genetic Counseling.
People who struggled with their weight said the knowledge was helpful because it reduced some of the emotional stress associated with weight control and eased some of the stigma and self-blame. None of the participants had a negative reaction to the genetic test result, nor did they say it made them feel like there was nothing they could do about their weight.
“These results are encouraging. Regardless of gene status or weight, all the volunteers recognized that both genes and behavior are important for weight control. The results indicate that people are unlikely to believe that genes are destiny and stop engaging with weight control once they know their FTO status,” study leader Susanne Meisel said in a UCL news release.
“Although they knew that FTO’s effect is only small, they found it motivating and informative. We are now doing a larger study to confirm whether more people react in the same way,” Meisel added.
Heredity alone doesn’t determine obesity, another expert noted.
“The causes of obesity are multiple and complex, and this research is encouraging for those who struggle with their weight. Although we know genetics play a part in weight, people can learn strategies to deal with this increased risk for weight gain, so finding out you carry the high-risk version of the gene shouldn’t mean you surrender to fate,” Dr. Laura McGowan, executive director of the U.K. charity Weight Concern, said in the news release.