Staying fit is a struggle for many, but it becomes especially difficult when your genes predispose you to obesity, a higher Body Mass Index (BMI), and a bigger waistline. Research published in the Open Journal of Genetics suggests that about 35 percent of Mexican young adults are predisposed to obesity, thanks to the fat mass and obesity-associated (FTO) gene.

As part of the Up Amigos project in collaboration with the University of Illinois and Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosi in Mexico, researchers investigated the impact of FTO gene variations on Mexican young adults. The researchers tested 251 18- to 25-year-olds for risk alleles, or alternative forms of genes, on the FTO gene. Research found that 15 percent of the young adults tested had inherited the genetic risk from both parents, 20 percent had inherited it from one parent, and 65 percent did not carry the risk allele.

"The students who inherited genetic risk factors from both parents were already 15.5 pounds heavier and two inches bigger around the waist than those who hadn't. They also had slightly higher fasting glucose levels," said Dr. Margarita Teran-Garcia, an assistant professor of food sciences and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a press release.

Why Test This Ethnic Group?

Everyone has the FTO gene, Teran-Garcia explains, but the frequency of some of the risk alleles differs among population groups. The FTO gene has been linked to obesity in other ethnic groups, but few studies have examined Mexicans and Mexican Americans, especially young adults.   

Socioeconomic factors, family diet, and exercise levels can easily affect any group’s propensity for obesity, but it turns out that some Mexican youths are already at a disadvantage. Previous research has shown that the obesity rate for Mexicans is significantly higher than it is for other ethnic groups. And because obesity among Mexicans, or any other group for that matter, is not always caused by diet, it may take a little extra effort for them to get in shape.

What Can You Do if You're at Risk?

If you’re predisposed to obesity, all hope is not lost.

“The idea is that we could compensate for our genetic makeup by our lifestyle choices,” Teran-Garcia explained. "So even if you have this predisposition, you may be able to change the way those genes behave by eating the right foods and getting more exercise. These good habits are especially important for young people who have a genetic risk for obesity.”

Studies of very large populations have shown that individuals who exercise on a regular basis but have one variant of the FTO gene that increases the risk of obesity actually have lower BMIs than those with the “normal” genotype variant. However, Teran-Garcia notes that having some of the genetic risk variants for obesity increases one's risk of developing diabetes.

The earlier you address the situation, the better. "If young people realize early that they have this predisposition, they can fight against it. If they are at risk for obesity, eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise is even more important for them," Teran-Garcia said.

In the future, the Up Amigos program will also investigate the effects regular exercise and its impact on obesity in Mexican young adults.  

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