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Obesity and genetics

Childhood obesity study reports that genes are not destiny

(Credit: Obesity Action Coalition)
The study characterised the relationship between genes and the environment as one of nature interacting with nurture rather than nature vs. nurture

An editorial published by researchers from University at Buffalo has praised a study that rigorously assessed how the home environments of young children who are genetically at high risk for obesity can influence whether they become overweight or obese. The editorial, 'Healthy Homes and Obesogenic Genes in Young Children - Rigorous Behavioral Theory and Measurement and the Detection of Gene-Environment Interactions', published in JAMA Pediatrics, reviewed the paper, ‘Variation in the Heritability of Child Body Mass Index by Obesogenic Home Environment’, by researchers from Dr Valerie Schrempft and colleagues from University College in London, UK.

"The study's main finding was that genetic influences on children's body mass index depends upon their home environment," said Dr Myles S Faith, professor of counseling, school and educational psychology in the UB Graduate School of Education. "The study found that for kids living in less 'obesogenic' homes - for example, who had more access to fruits and vegetables and who watched less television - the size of the genetic influence was cut roughly in half. Thus, genes are not destiny. Healthier homes can potentially offset obesogenic genes."

Faith co-authored an editorial in JAMA Pediatrics with Dr Leonard H Epstein, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

The UB professors commended the researchers for characterising the relationship between genes and the environment ‘as one of nature interacting with nurture rather than nature vs. nurture.’

The researchers form University College wanted to know whether the heritability of BMI was higher among children who live in more obesogenic home environments. For their study, they examined a cohort study of 925 twin pairs and the parents completed the Home Environment Interview, a comprehensive measure of the obesogenic home environment in early childhood. Three standardised composite scores were created to capture food, physical activity, and media-related influences in the home; these were summed to create an overall obesogenic risk score. The four composite scores were split on the mean, reflecting higher-risk and lower-risk home environments.

They found that the heritability of BMI at four years for those living in higher-risk obesogenic home environments was 86% and more than double that for those living in lower-risk obesogenic home environments (39%).

These results suggest that obesity-related genes are more strongly associated with BMI in more obesogenic home environments, and that genetic predisposition to obesity could be buffered by the early home environment, the authors noted.

"Most genetics studies have been positioned as 'nature versus nurture' in the onset of obesity in childhood, rather than nature and nurture working in combination," added Faith. "The study by Schrempft et al. took such an approach and had novel discoveries. It was an exciting opportunity to comment upon this study, and what it could mean for paediatricians and other health providers treating paediatric obesity…These findings imply that homes promoting healthy eating and activity, if sustained, can partially offset children's genetic susceptibilities to obesity. This can be a powerful and empowering message to families from health care providers, courtesy of genetics research."

To access the study by Schrempft et al, please click here

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