Can You Blame Your Genes for Bad Eating Habits?

Can You Blame Your Genes for Bad Eating Habits?

It’s possible that at least some of the blame for bad eating habits, such as a preference for French fries, greasy burgers, chocolate bars, and potato chips, can be directed toward your genes. A team of researchers in Spain reported they had identified certain brain gene variants (variations of a gene) that have an impact on people’s preferences for high-fat, high-sodium, and/or high-sugary foods.

Investigators are interested in this finding not because it gives some people a convenient excuse for their bad eating habits but because the information may help them develop successful ways to help prevent and treat overweight, obesity, and other chronic conditions associated with poor eating habits, such as eating disorders.

Read about why the American diet is so full of unhealthy foods

Genes and eating preferences

For years, scientists have been exploring the role of genes and genetics in eating disorders, such as bulimia, anorexia, and others. About fifteen years ago, for example, researchers uncovered “the first genetic linkage finding we have in anorexia” at the University of Pennsylvania. The authors of a 2016 study from Mexico found a possible role of a specific gene (HTR1B) involved in the susceptibility to develop bulimia as well as an impact on the severity of anxiety in individuals with anorexia.

This latest study, however, focused on whether genes and genetics have a role in food selections made by healthy individuals. Subjects included 818 adults (414 women, 404 men) of European ancestry whose data was available through the Genetics and Lipid Lowering Drugs and Diet Network study. Data included genetic information on each patient as well as their dietary habits.

An analysis of the data showed some specific genes and gene variants were associated with certain food preferences. For example:

  • Variants of the SLC6A2 gene were associated with a greater intake of total fat
  • Variants of the CREB1 and GABRA2 genes were associated with a higher intake of salt
  • Variants of the receptor gene for oxytocin were associated with a higher intake of chocolate and a larger waist circumference

Read about junk food: what we are eating and why

One of the study’s authors, Silvia Berciano of the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, explained that “Ours is the first study describing how brain genes affect food intake and dietary preferences in a group of healthy people.” This could be a critical first step toward finding effective ways to manage, treat, or even eliminate poor dietary habits and the chronic diseases that can accompany them.

In the meantime, however, knowledge is power. Could you have a gene variant that makes you more likely to want doughnuts or chocolate ice cream or onion rings? It’s possible. Even if you do, you also can make a conscious choice to limit your intake, make a healthier choice, or walk away completely.


Berciano S et al. Behavior related genes, dietary preferences and anthropometric traits. Presented at the Experimental Biology 2017 in Chicago, IL, 2017 Apr 24

DeAngeles T. A genetic link to anorexia. American Psychological Association2002 Mar; 33(3): 34

Hernandez S et al. A family-based association study of the HTR1B gene in eating disorders. Rev Bras Psiquiatr 206 Jul-Sep; 38(3): 239-42

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