Researchers say they may have discovered a way to predict who will become obese before they start putting on the pounds.

A new study has uncovered 25 genetic factors that are linked to metabolic disturbances that can lead to obesity.

The discovery, the researchers say, could help predict a person’s obesity risk and allow doctors to recommend lifestyle and diet changes while the patient is still young.


The findings could be far-reaching. Nearly 70 percent of adults age 20 and older in the United States are either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While it's known that body fat raises the risk of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, it’s not understood what mechanisms are responsible for bringing on these ailments.

To better understand the metabolic disturbances underlying obesity, researchers analyzed the metabolic profiles of more than 2,000 people from the United States and the United Kingdom. Some of the participants were lean. Others were obese.

Researchers collected data on the participants’ diet and lifestyle, blood pressure, and body mass index (BMI), which is a measure of body fat based on an individual's height and weight. They also analyzed participants’ urine samples to measure substances called metabolites, which are produced from the breakdown of food into energy.

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Risk Factors Revealed

Study author Paul Elliott, professor of medicine in the school of public health at Imperial College London, said the biggest takeaway from the study is the understanding that obesity is a systemic condition that involves many different disturbances of metabolism that may relate to future risk of disease.

“These [mechanisms] may provide starting points for development of new approaches to preventing and treating obesity and its associated diseases,” Elliott said.

Based on their analysis, Elliott and other researchers identified 25 metabolites that strongly correlated with BMI.

In obese participants, researchers discovered nine compounds produced by gut microbes that are involved in five different host-gut microbial metabolic pathways, including those involved in microbial breakdown of essential vitamins, amino acids, and protein.

“The results of the study showed the involvement of many interconnected systems in adiposity [body fat], including amino acids and muscle metabolism, energy metabolism and involvement of gut bacterial metabolism,” said Elliott.

Other metabolites discovered were related to diet, including urinary glucose and a compound known to be a marker of red meat correlated with high BMI. Additionally, an amino acid related to citrus fruit intake correlated with low BMI.

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A Biomarker for Predicting Obesity Risk

The researchers constructed a metabolic network map that provides a big picture of the complex interplay between genetics, environment, diet, and lifestyle that contributes to metabolic disturbances in obesity.

The analysis may give healthcare providers a practical biomarker for alerting patients at a young age to their risk of obesity, allowing the person to adapt their diet and lifestyle earlier.

“In the future it may be possible to identify non-obese people with urinary metabolite patterns associated with increased risk of developing obesity and metabolic diseases,” said Elliott. “Such people might benefit from personalized approaches to obesity prevention, for example, through lifestyle modification to improve diet and increase physical activity.”

Until then, Elliott notes that obesity is a major public health problem and on the increase in many countries worldwide.

“Intensified efforts are required to prevent obesity through lifestyle measures, including a healthy, prudent diet and increased physical activity,” he said.

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