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Posted 05 December 2008

Diet may regulate obesity health risks, but genes decide

With the escalating costs of treating the increasing number of obese Europeans, scientists convene at University College Dublin, Ireland, for conference to discuss findings from 5 year EU Lipgene research.

The risk of obese people developing the metabolic syndrome that leads to diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, can not be solved by a one-size-fits-all diet programme, according to new scientific findings.

The results of a five year EU research programme show that personalised nutrition diets based on peoples genetic make-up will be the way of the future when tackling obesity and its associated health risks.

Currently, obesity costs the EU an estimated €32.8 billion each year. According to the latest Department of Health Report, 66% of Irish adults are overweight with close to 25% per cent being defined as obese (Dietary Habits of the Irish Population, 2008). And it is estimated that 50% of Europeans will be obese by 2050.

Obesity results when excess calories are consumed and insufficient energy is spent (physical inactivity). Obesity is a major health hazard worldwide, it is directly linked to several common diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and some cancers.

“We analysed the findings from 500 volunteers across Europe who took part in a dietary programme to measure the effects of different diets on the development of the metabolic syndrome associated with obesity,” says Professor Helen Roche from the UCD Institute of Food and Health, one of the principal scientists on the Lipgene programme.

“The volunteers, each of whom were previously identified as obese and at risk from developing associated health complications, were placed on one of four specific diets,” Professor Roche explains.

One was high fat, high in saturated fats, like the average Irish diet. One was high fat, high in monounsaturated fats, like the average Mediterranean diet. And two were low fat diets one of which had a fish oil supplement.

“After the dietary programme was complete the volunteers were tested for reductions in any of the five main factors associated with the metabolic syndrome - high blood glucose; high levels of fats in the blood; high blood pressure; a waist circumference greater than 100cm; and low levels of good cholesterol (HDL).”

“The findings show that different fats have different health effects.  A high saturated fat diet dis-improved the metabolic profile of subjects whilst the fish oils had positive effects. But certain clusters of genes determined a volunteer’s responsiveness to dietary interventions.  Some of the volunteers experienced obvious positive effects while others experienced little or no changes to the metabolic syndrome indicators,” says Professor Roche.

As the common genetic variations, or polymorphisms, identified in the volunteer group are carried in 25% - 30% of the general population, the sample is clinically relevant, according to the scientists. The findings will now be tested against different population cohorts in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.

If the results are confirmed by further studies, we will see the creation of more effective dietary treatments and nutritional therapies for obesity. Into the future, a GP is likely to take a blood sample from a patient to compare their genotype against genes active in common diseases and related this to the person’s lifestyle and environmental factors to gauge whether physical activity as opposed to nutritional regulation might work better for each individual patient.

It may be like visiting a GP to be measured for a certain health fitting which has been proven to work for your genetic type - just as we visit tailors and dress makers for fitted suits and dresses that make us feel and look better.

At the conference, Professor Michael Gibney from UCD and the coordinator of the Lipgene project called on EU policy makers to evaluate the evidence presented by the Lipgene project with a view to improving the health of the EU population.


As the five-year, multidisciplinary Lipgene project draws to a close, researchers from the project present and discuss their main scientific findings at an international conference hosted by University College Dublin on 05 December 2008.

The Lipgene project was established in 2004 as one of the European Union’s sixth framework integrated projects to investigate the interaction between dietary fat composition and genotype in the development of the metabolic syndrome in humans, drawing upon knowledge gained from research in the areas of human nutrition, plant biotechnology, animal nutrition, economics and consumer science.

Ten European countries have been involved in the Lipgene project: Ireland, Finland, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

The Lipgene consortium comprises 22 organisations: University College Dublin, Ireland; University of Reading, UK; University of Oslo, Norway; University of Krakow, Poland; University of Cordoba, Spain; University of Bergen, Norway; University of Upsalla, Sweden; University of Porto, Portugal; University of Ulster at Coleraine, UK; University of York, UK; British Nutrition Foundation; Rowett Research Institute, UK; MTT Agrifoods Research, Finland; INRA, France; Unilever; Rothamstead Research, UK; BASF Plant Science GmbH, Germany; LMC International; NUTRIM, Maastricht, The Netherlands; INSERM, France; Hitachi, Europe Limited.

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