Epigenetic changes caused by sugar sweetened beverages increases genetic risk to obesity.

obesity1A study from the Harvard School of Public Health determined that consumption of sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) is linked to genetic changes causing an increased risk of obesity, illustrating the depth and complexity of the public health epidemic that the United States faces.

“Our study for the first time provides reproducible evidence from three prospective cohorts to show genetic and dietary factors — sugar-sweetened beverages — may mutually influence their effects on body weight and obesity risk. The findings may motivate further research on interactions between genomic variation and environmental factors regarding human health,” said Lu Qi, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH and senior author of the study.

The research study consisted of a large population group including 121,700 women in the Nurses’ Health Study, 51,529 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and 25,000 in the Women’s Genome Health Study. All of the research participants completed food-frequency questionnaires detailing their food and drink consumption over time.

In addition the researchers examined data from 6,934 women from NHS, 4,423 men from HPFS, and 21,740 women from WGHS who were of European ancestry and for whom genotype data based on genome-wide association studies were available. Participants were divided into four groups according to how many sugary drinks they consumed: less than one serving of SSB per month, between 1-4 servings per month, between 2-6 servings per week, and one or more servings per day. To represent the overall genetic predisposition, a genetic predisposition score was calculated on the basis of the 32 single-nucleotide polymorphisms known to be associated with BMI (weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters).

The research findings quite clearly revealed that BMI and obesity risks among those who drank one or more sugar sweetened beverages per day increased the genetic risk to obesity by 50%. Individuals who already have an increased genetic predisposition to obesity are impacted more substantially by the harmful effects of SSBs on BMI.

“SSBs are one of the driving forces behind the obesity epidemic,” said Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at HSPH and a coauthor of this study. “The implication of our study is that the genetic effects of obesity can be offset by healthier food and beverage choices.


Qibin Qi, Audrey Y. Chu, Jae H. Kang, Majken K. Jensen, Gary C. Curhan, Louis R. Pasquale, Paul M. Ridker, David J. Hunter, Walter C. Willett, Eric B. Rimm, Daniel I. Chasman, Frank B. Hu, Lu Qi. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Genetic Risk of Obesity. New England Journal of Medicine, 2012; 120921130020003 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1203039

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