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Healthy Lifestyle Can Overcome a Genetic Tendency to Belly Fat

Getting enough exercise and eating a healthful diet, along with not smoking and other lifestyle factors, can override genes for belly fat.

Belly fat is more than a cosmetic problem. Packing on fat in the mid-section can increase a person’s chance of developing heart disease and its many complications. But is there anything you can do if you come from a family with big bellies? New research says yes indeed.

Sticking to a Healthy Lifestyle Can Defeat Genetic Inclinations to Belly Fat:

Researchers wondered whether following a healthy lifestyle could overcome a genetic propensity to abdominal obesity (the medical term). They took advantage of the UK Biobank to try to find out. Analyzing data from 282,316 participants gave a fascinating result (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Nov. 2023). They looked at 156 SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms, a way of checking genetics). In addition, they considered questionnaires on five different lifestyle factors: physical activity, smoking, diet, alcohol consumption and sleep. Over the next 14 years, they checked participants’ health records for a diagnosis of heart disease.

Healthy Lifestyle Trumps Genes:

People who embraced a healthy approach to at least four lifestyle factors were 25 percent less likely to develop heart disease than those with unhealthy lifestyles. As it turned out, lifestyle factors were much more important than a genetic propensity for a high waist-hip ratio. That’s a technical way of referring to belly fat.

An accompanying editorial notes that people can change their lifestyles, although they can’t change their genes. It suggests that researchers study whether healthy lifestyles can protect people from heart disease regardless of genes for belly fat. We certainly wouldn’t discourage any useful research. However, we think the studies that identified regular physical activity, no smoking, a diet low in junk food, moderate alcohol consumption and adequate sleep as healthy have already been done. Maybe we need to focus on just how to help people achieve these lifestyle approaches, even in the face of challenges.

Learn More:

We discussed belly fat as a risk factor for disease, along with dietary approaches to overcome it, with Dr. Robert Lustig. It is Show 1362: Lowdown on New Medicines for Treating Obesity–Part 2.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Wang M et al, "Adherence to a healthy lifestyle, genetic susceptibility to abdominal obesity, cardiometabolic risk markers, and risk of coronary heart disease." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Nov. 2023. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajcnut.2023.08.002
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