The future of weight loss may not be a complicated fusion of pills and fad diets, afterall. (Let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief.) In fact, some health professionals forecast the next big advancement is simple (sorta): Customized diets and physical activity plans will be created for overweight individuals using their very own genetic data, according to research from the University of Texas at Austin.
The approach is called “precision weight loss.” The researchers explain we're in dire need of effective tools that can uncover just how genetics, lifestyle behaviors, and weight-related diseases relate to one another.
Their summary report on the genetics of weight loss, published in the journal Obesity, touches on what scientists currently know about factors relating to weight loss and weight gain, and identifies how genetic information—collected through portable, noninvasive devices—may soon be integrated in weight loss treatments.
"I think within five years, we'll see people start to use a combination of genetic, behavioral and other sophisticated data to develop individualized weight management plans," said Molly Bray, geneticist and lead study author, in a press release.
Men and women might submit saliva samples for gene sequencing, and/or use automated sensors to collect lifestyle factors about their environment, diet, activity, and stress, she added. After, a computer algorithm could take this information and provide patients with personalized recommendations to achieve their target weight.
It's actually not as complicated as it may seem—especially compared to all of the other fitness-related technology that’s inundated the market in recent years. Bray says scientists already have the ability to collect the kinds of data they need to begin fundamental research on precision weight loss since the cost of genome sequencing is dropping, and we already have portable monitors (like Fitbit), which track people’s activity levels, behaviors, and environment in real time.
"We are pretty good at helping people lose weight in the short term," said Bray. "But the stats on long-term weight loss are pretty dismal. We still don't understand the process of weight regain very well, either from a behavioral or a biological standpoint."
Fortunately, the country's—and world’s—booming interest in getting healthier and fitter doesn’t seem to be waning any time soon, so the hope of this possibility becoming reality looks pretty good. And it’s well worth the investment since our bodies process foods differently; it truly is more difficult for some people to lose weight than it is for others.
The researchers say about half the variation in people's body mass index can be attributed to genetic factors, while the rest is due to environmental factors, like diet and exercise. So, depending on your specific genetic makeup, exercise might be less effective at reducing your weight than it is for your friend or brother. Hopefully this will get people more motivated to make a change, be less hard on themselves, and acknowledge there’s more at play when it comes to obesity.
"We've made great strides in our understanding of what drives eating behavior, how fat cells are formed and how metabolism is altered before and after the onset of obesity," said Bray. "The time is ripe to take this wealth of data and find ways to utilize it more effectively to treat people in need."