Some health experts predict that the next big advance in helping overweight people achieve a healthier weight will be to use an individual's genetic data to customize diets and physical activity plans, an approach known as "precision weight loss."
A recent summary report on the genetics of weight loss, developed by some of the leading experts in this field, finds that the biggest challenge to realizing this dream is the need for better analytical tools for discovering the relationships between genetics, behavior and weight-related diseases.
The report, which appears this month the journal Obesity, summarizes what scientists currently know about factors that influence weight loss and weight regain, and it identifies how genetic information and data collection from noninvasive, portable devices may soon be incorporated into research and weight loss treatment.
Some experts believe that within five years, we'll see people start to use a combination of genetic, behavioral and other data to develop individualized weight management plans.
It is speculated that in the future, patients might submit saliva samples for gene sequencing, along with using automated sensors to collect information about factors such as their environment, diet, activity and stress. A computer algorithm would take this information and provide patients with specific recommendations to achieve their target weight.
The falling cost of genome sequencing, plus portable monitors (such as Fitbit) to track in real time people's behavior and environment, mean that scientists already have the ability to collect the kinds of data they need to do the fundamental research behind precision weight loss. The challenge now for researchers is to develop the tools to analyze this data.
Scientists have uncovered some of the genetic basis for weight-related diseases, such as the discovery of a gene that appears to cause energy from food to be stored as fat rather than be burned.
There are likely several genes involved with weight loss and weigh maintenance, which interact with each other in complicated ways.
Multiple research projects have shown that about half of the variation in people's body mass index can be attributed to genetic factors, while the rest is due to environmental factors, including diet and exercise. For example, depending on a person's specific genetic makeup, exercise might be less effective at reducing weight for some people compared with others.
This report grew out of a workshop convened by the National Institutes of Health in 2014 titled "Genes, Behaviors, and Response to Weight Loss Interventions." It synthesizes a broad range of research from institutions around the world.
Source: Obesity, online December 22, 2015.
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