Comfort Food Genes

The drive to seek out comfort food that is highly reinforcing appears to interact with the FTO gene — a gene that is increasingly well understood to influence a person’s risk of obesity. The interaction of these two factors can play an important role in how many calories and nutrients a person will consume. That’s the finding of a new study published online this week in Physiology & Behavior.

The relative reinforcing value of food is a measure of how motivated a person is to seek out and consume food. Researchers have standardized measures to quantify differences between people in terms of how motivated they are to seek out highly palatable, reinforcing snack foods — like potato chips. These measures are well known to predict how much a person will eat, their body weight, and their risk of weight gain.

Obesity has been understood for some time to have a strong genetic basis. The association of certain forms of the FTO gene was first identified in 2007 as conferring a risk for obesity. FTO is now among the strongest of the known genetic risk factors for obesity.

Knowing now that these two factors can interact so that one can increase or reduce the effect of the other provides important clues for tailoring treatment to an individual person. For example, a drug might reduce the reinforcement of palatable foods and thus be particularly useful for someone with an FTO gene for obesity.

It’s clues like this that are pointing the way to more effective strategies for treating obesity.

Click here to read the study in Physiology & Behavior.

Chip, photograph © Dave Lawler / flickr

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