February 29, 2024

Your genes may influence the amount of fruit, fish or salt you eat

A preference for fruit over other snacks may be in your genes

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Whether you crave salty dishes or snack on fruit, your genes may influence the food choices you make. A better understanding of how this varies from person to person could one day lead to customized meal plans that help people make nutritional choices that take their genetic preferences into account.

“There are so many other factors influencing dietary intake – such as socio-economic status, culture and disease diagnoses – that have sparked the direct genetic component from the environmental or indirect genetic components that have really motivated me,” says Joanne Cole at the University of Colorado.

Cole and her colleagues had previously identified 814 regions in the human genome relating to various aspects of a person’s dietary intake, including how much fruit, vegetables, meat and fish they eat.

The team wanted to better understand whether these regions directly or indirectly influence a person’s food choices. “For example, genes that influence diabetes risk may be related to dietary intake because of changes in disease management, such as eating less sugar, and not because the gene directly affects a person’s eating behavior,” says Cole.

The researchers conducted a so-called phenome-wide association study for the 814 regions. This involves taking a single genetic variant and scanning it for certain traits – such as taste preferences, eating habits and health conditions. – to see if there is an association. Each region was scanned for more than 4000 traits, using data from around 500,000 participants in the UK Biobank study.

From this, the researchers identified 481 regions in the genome that appear to directly affect nutritional intake through taste perceptions and preferences. The work was presented at Nutrition 2023, the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition in Boston, Massachusetts. Some of the foods and drinks most affected by these genes include salt, water, fish, alcohol and fruit.

“Consumers report that taste is the number one driver of food choice, so how different people perceive different tastes may be key to personalized nutrition to improve healthy eating,” says Cole.

“I am now focusing on identifying these sensory genes related to food intake and understanding how different people with different gene versions of these taste and smell receptors experience different pleasure and reward activities in the brain. The goal is to make healthier eating easier for different people and I think taste is key.”

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