Plunging a greasy set of knuckles into a bucket of fried chicken may be your average Friday night, or it may be your life — each day a different testament to your love of fried foods, from Pork Rind Sunday to Onion Rings Saturday. You’ll almost surely get sick, but whether this diet has any bearing on your actual body weight could be up to your genes to decide.

A large part of the still-active debate over the United States’ obesity epidemic involves genetics’ role in making people fat. The American Medical Association formally classified obesity as a disease last June, changing it from its status as a risk-factor for other diseases. With the classification came a newfound uncertainty: Are people obese because they are predisposed to obesity, or do they simply lack the will power to commit to regular exercise and healthy eating?

Science hasn’t resolved the debate entirely; we still don’t know, for instance, how large a role genetics plays in a person retaining adipose tissue — around the mid-section, sometimes known as “stubborn belly fat.” But science is getting closer. Researchers from Harvard University recently looked at the genetic risk factors and fried food consumption of over 37,000 men and women participating in three large national health trials.

Led by Associate Professor Dr. Lu Qi, the team had participants fill out questionnaires related to their body mass index (BMI), in order to calculate their genetics risk score, and estimate how many times a week, on average, they ate fried foods — either less than once a week, one to three times a week, or four or more times a week. Genetic risk was judged on a scale of zero to 64 and measured according to markers in the subjects’ blood.

Overall, the participants who ate fried food at least four times a week had twice the BMI effect when they had the highest genetic risk score compared to those who had the lowest. The effect was similar to a 2012 study conducted by Qi and his colleagues investigating the link between a person’s genes and his or her consumption of sugary beverages — people who had at least one sugary drink per day were more than two and half times more likely to be obese when their genetic risk score was greatest.

But Qi is hesitant to overstate the implications of someone’s individual genomic properties in him or her becoming obese. “It is still far from applying our findings in public health practice,” he told Medical Daily. “We encourage everyone to reduce fried food intake, and take a healthy lifestyle.”

Ultimately, eliminating only fried chicken and soda from your diet won’t make you sufficiently healthier. It’ll help, but as it pertains to overall health, total elimination of fried foods and sugary beverages is ideal. Moving forward, Qi hopes the research his team and others are doing in the fight against obesity can someday make gene research a natural component of obesity prevention.

“With more knowledge about the interactions between dietary factors and human genome accumulated in the future,” he said, “it is possible to improve the efficacy of diet interventions by considering individuals' genomic makeup.”

 

Source: Qi L, Chu A, Kang J, et al. Fried food consumption, genetic risk, and body mass index: gene-diet interaction analysis in three US cohort studies. BMJ. 2014.