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Fat Genes Have Role in Common Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity

The list of risk factors for common childhood obesity just got several more members. Discovery of fat genes, new gene variants that raise the risk of common childhood obesity, could eventually lead to effective ways to prevent and treat obesity in children.

Common childhood obesity is a growing challenge

As the prevalence of obesity among children rises, these young people also risk a lifetime of health problems, including those that can shorten their lives. Currently, that at-risk population numbers approximately 12.5 million children and adolescents (17%) ages 2 to 19 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The newest entry into the fight against childhood obesity is the result of a study by the international collaborative group Early Growth Genetics Consortium. Lead investigator Struan F.A. Grant, PhD, associate director of the Center for Applied Genomics at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia noted that “we have definitively identified and characterized a genetic predisposition to common childhood obesity.”

The announcement came after the Consortium conducted a meta-analysis that included 14 previous studies encompassing 5,530 children with childhood obesity and 8,300 controls. This effort was the largest genome-wide study ever conducted of common childhood obesity.

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The investigators found two new gene variants that increase the risk of common childhood obesity plus some evidence for an additional two variants. Another discovery is that “The known biology of three of the genes hints at a role of the intestine, although their precise functional role in obesity is currently unknown,” noted Grant.

Childhood obesity and its risks
While genetics appear to have a role in childhood obesity, there are other risk factors to be considered as well, and some of them parents and young people can control, including poor diet (fast foods, high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar foods), lack of exercise, and psychological factors (e.g., boredom, stress). A family history of obesity may be genetic as well as environmental, especially if families have a habit of eating high-calorie foods and not encouraging exercise.

The complications of childhood obesity are serious and long-lasting. On the physical side is the risk of type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, asthma, sleep disorders (e.g., sleep apnea), heart disease, and early puberty. Obese children and adolescents also tend to experience more bullying, low self-esteem, behavior problems, and depression than their normal weight peers.

The fight against common childhood obesity still has a long way to go, but the discovery of fat genes that increase the risk of this growing health problem may help in the development of new preventive techniques and treatment options based on a person’s individual genomes.

Bradfield JP et al. A genome-wide association meta-analysis identifies new childhood obesity loci. Nature Genetics, published online April 8, 2012. DOI: 10.1038/ng.2247
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Image: Author