Who’s Fat? 50% of Indians Carry Obesity Gene

I recently wrote about the worldwide food price crisis, which has the potential to leave millions in the Indian subcontinent malnourished in the upcoming months and years. A number of commenters then wrote in to point out that middle-class Indians, who can afford to eat high-calorie, processed foods, have pretty unhealthy eating habits, and are rapidly growing obese.

It’s true, but it’s not only diet. The BBC has a recent article summarizing the findings of a recent study suggesting that 50% of people of Indian descent carry a gene that predisposes them to obesity.

The gene is located near the MC4R sequence, which has been linked by some scientists with binge eating:

The gene sequence sits close to – and possibly influences – a gene called MC4R, which regulates energy levels in the body by influencing how much we eat and how much energy we expend or conserve, and which has been directly implicated in rare forms of extreme childhood obesity.

The researchers discovered that the sequence is associated with a 2cm expansion in waist circumference, a 2kg gain in weight, and a tendency to become resistant to insulin, which can lead to type 2 diabetes. (link)

(Incidentally, a while ago we wrote about the growth of Type II diabetes amongst South Asians: here)

New Kerala actually gives a much more technical summary of the results of the study, for those who are interested:

The team from the Cambridge GEM consortium (Genetics of Energy Metabolism) and Oxford University and a collaboration between 77 institutions from the UK, USA, France, Germany, Italy, Finland and Sweden analysed 77,000 adults and discovered two copies of genetic variants that resulted in an average increase in weight of about 1.5 kg.

Previous studies demonstrated the a role for the FTO gene, which showed that people carrying two copies of an FTO variant are about 2-3 kg heavier than those who have no copies of the variant.

The recently discovered variants act along with the variants of the FTO gene and individuals carrying variants in both genes were found to be, on average, 3.8 kg heavier. [...]

The new variants lie some distance from the MC4R gene. The team suspect that the sequence variant changes activity of the MC4R gene, perhaps by disrupting DNA regions required for normal activity of MC4R.

(link)

Hm, reading all this makes me wonder about my own genetic make-up. Would people get themselves tested for this, if a simple test were possible? How might it affect you if you knew that you were genetically predisposed to obesity?

(Incidentally, the findings were originally published in the journal Nature Genetics; I have not yet been able to find the specific article as of yet…)

49 thoughts on “Who’s Fat? 50% of Indians Carry Obesity Gene

  1. Would people get themselves tested for this, if a simple test were possible? How might it affect you if you knew that you were genetically predisposed to obesity?

    people are bad planners. if your outcome from activity X is going be Y, take precautions against X in relation to the proportionate response of Y to X. in other words, personal genomics is all about increasing the density of your priors in making a world where you have finite time and will.

  2. Why Is There Such A High Incidence Of Diabetes Among Asian Indians?: The study yielded a number of interesting findings. Researchers observed that the Indian subjects, irrespective of their diabetic status, had a greater degree of insulin resistance than the American subjects of Northern European origin, even though the study subjects were not obese, a condition commonly associated with insulin resistance. Earlier research has established that people with insulin resistance typically have poorly functioning muscle mitochondria. Mitochondria are the part of cells responsible for converting energy from nutrients to ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the chemical form of cellular energy that the body uses for almost all functions.

    “Our study showed that the Indian diabetic and nondiabetic subjects with insulin resistance actually had mitochondrial function that was higher than those observed in the Northern European American subjects,” says Dr. Nair.

    Dr. Nair hypothesizes that key to understanding this difference may lie in an examination of how populations adapt as they become more urbanized. Urban societies typically move away from lifestyles that involve a higher level of physical activity and diets dominated by low-calorie foods.

  3. Hmm now I’m curious to my variation especially since I’m a student of molecular biology! There are some people who binge under stress and some people who stop eating, luckily though I belong to the latter group!

  4. finally comment: south asians are a very diverse group. these data are to some extent the best we got; some info is better than no info. but if you generalized alcoholism susceptibility of sicilians to finns you would be really off (mediterraneans are at far less risk of alcholism for metabolic reasons than northern europeans). i think the same variation exists within south asia too…. (we know there is variation for lactose tolerance, with northern indian groups exhibiting it and south indian groups generally not)

  5. if people are interested in the availability of personal genomics kits and what not, i recommend checking out blogs on the dna network. they stay up-to-date on the companies entering the field and their market position….

  6. 2 cm circumference, 2 kgs weight extra….. thats hardly a big deal

    1) it’s one gene. there are probably others.

    2) it is a big deal on the population level. if you shift the mean just a bit that can radically increase the proportion at a tail.

  7. I’m so glad you posted about this. In this week’s New Yorker, Bee Wilson has a great article about the world food crisis– The Last Bite: Is the World’s Food System Collapsing? She reviews three books on food, including “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System,” by Raj Patel (Melville House; $19.95), Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” and “Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood,” by Taras Grescoe. One of the points she discussed is obesity in India:

    Michael Pollan writes that the food business once lamented what it called the problem of the “fixed stomach”—it appeared that demand for food, unlike other products, was inelastic, the amount fixed by the dimensions of the stomach itself, the variety constrained by tradition and habit. In the past few decades, however, American and European stomachs have become as elastic as balloons, and, with the newly prosperous Chinese and Indians switching to Western diets, much of the rest of the world is following suit. “Today, Mexicans drink more Coca-Cola than milk,” Patel reports. Roberts tells us that in India “obesity is now growing faster than either the government or traditional culture can respond,” and the demand for gastric bypasses is soaring.

    More on Patel:

    A former U.N. consultant and a current anti-globalization activist, [he] is an excitable fan of peasant coöperatives and Slow Food. He lacks Roberts’s cool scope but shares his ambition to connect all the dots. Patel would like us to take lessons in “culinary sensuousness” from his “dear friend” Marco Flavio Marinucci, a San Francisco-based artist and, apparently, a master of the art of “gastronomical foreplay.” Patel regrets that most of us are nothing like dear Mr. Marinucci. We are all too busy being screwed over by the giant corporations to take the time to appreciate “the deeper and subtler pleasures of food.” For Patel, it is a short step from Western consumers “engorged and intoxicated” with cheap processed food to Mexican and Indian farmers committing suicide because they can’t make a living. The “food industry’s pabulum” makes us all cogs in an evil machine.

    His website: http://stuffedandstarved.org/drupal/frontpage

  8. Razib : Your posting are abstruse, yet hint of some knowledge. Could you please quit the gobbledegook and let diabetics like me profit from your knowledge? A longer, well thought out comment would serve better. No offense meant.

  9. Razib : Your posting are abstruse, yet hint of some knowledge. Could you please quit the gobbledegook and let diabetics like me profit from your knowledge? A longer, well thought out comment would serve better. No offense meant.

    you can read my blog. don’t have the marginal time to replicate exposition everywhere.

  10. The article says, “The sequence, discovered by a team led by Imperial College London, is carried by 50% of the population – but is a third more common in Indian Asians. “

    So, first of all, half of everyone in Britain has it, and whatever “a third more common” means –80%? –66%? — say that proportion of British Desis have it — you have to figure in who settled in Britain as opposed to who stayed in India and wwho came here and went elsewhere, and how they are measuring/projecting this and what happened to MC4R-stricken Desis when they either started living on chocolates and sugar like Brits or eating corn syrup in processed foods here– or not, being doctors and engineers and all.

  11. I think this related to why BMI numbers are inaccurate for Indians as body fat to muscle proportion is higher even if the total weight is less than the obese range.

  12. Is there a gene that makes you have a huge gut but be skinny everywhere else? Alot of Indian guys are built like this.

  13. or not, being doctors and engineers and all.

    Amrita, the majority of desis in the UK are not doctors and engineers and all…they are overwhelmingly working class. Although certainly there are many educated desi professionals in the UK, overall it’s quite a different demographic than those who came to America in the 60s and 70s.

  14. Amrita, the majority of desis in the UK are not doctors and engineers and all…they are overwhelmingly working class. Although certainly there are many educated desi professionals in the UK, overall it’s quite a different demographic than those who came to America in the 60s and 70s.

    indians are different than pakistanis & bangladeshis. the east african element of indians who arrived in th 1970s are especially doing well.

  15. 16 · ShallowThinker on May 15, 2008 09:25 PM · Direct link · “Quote�(?) Is there a gene that makes you have a huge gut but be skinny everywhere else? Alot of Indian guys are built like this.

    I definitely know that the areas where fat accumulation on one’s body occur fastest are genetically determined. Unfortunately, I don’t know the particular gene since I am not a doctor or associated with any other field of biology :) .

    Many Indians- especially males, are predisposed to putting on fat on their stomachs. The other contributing factors are the lack of exercise (causing muscles to atrophy) and the lack of sufficient protein (especially vegetarians) in their daily diet.

  16. re: the huge gut and skinny body, I totally have that! It does not apply to males only; it is seen in females as well but it’s just not as obvious due to their fat elsewhere. I myself am a size 2 and my friends think I’m anorexic when I say I need to workout. They have a hard time believing I look best at a size 0, until they see my belly. Since I gain my weight on my belly, even an extra two pounds of fat there looks like i’m in my first trimester.

    Even when desi people do eat sufficient protein, they are genetically prone to insulin resistance. One of the first outward signs of insulin resistance is a big belly relative to body size (i.e., a high waist-to-hip ratio), and this is seen even before people have the blood glucose amounts to be classified as diabetic. So if you have that figure, it is better to get started on prevention now. A low-glycemic diet definitely helps regulate insulin levels more steadily throughout the day so IR is not exacerbated. Adding fiber or protein to a carb-heavy meal will lower the glycemic load of the meal. Also, aerobic exercise will make cells more sensitive to insulin. I see a good example of this in my father; he is 53 years old and has been running every other day since he was a teenager. He is often confused for his 35 year old brother, and does not have the baldness and diabetes some of his other brothers have. Remember that insulin affects DHT levels, which is the hormone implicated in baldness. This is just speculative, but I am pretty sure my dad’s exercise sched has slowed his aging process a bit. So if you’re a skinny desi guy, ignore the people who say you’re too skinny to worry about exercise. Start now and fight your tendency for insulin resistance. Meanwhile, get a hot bod, and keep a full head of hair ;)

  17. Sidra said:

    ignore the people who say you’re too skinny to worry about exercise.

    Thanks for that post Sidra. Also because of our small bone structure (well I have small bones and many South Asians do too) even when we are fat (fat around the organs, pinch test etc…), at a cursory glance we might still look thin. Just this morning in France (where people are skinny right into ripe old age) the nurse at the hospital said I was thin. And actually I have put on 10kgs in the last 18 months and have lots of handles. Back when I was svelte and lovely, it was very frustrating to hear people say that I’m just naturally that way. They had no idea how disciplined I was with diet and exercise.

  18. razib @ 36

    finally comment: south asians are a very diverse group. …i think the same variation exists within south asia too…. (we know there is variation for lactose tolerance, with northern indian groups exhibiting it and south indian groups generally not)

    Yes there is a lot of variation in South Asia but as far as diabetes and other metabolic diseases are concerned they seem fairly widely distributed.

    Also another unrelated comment, the way the French eat butter, I think they must have super arteries. I just watched this guy eat my whole year’s quota of fat in a single meal. I cannot eat a European diet. I’d die in 2 months. As it is I’ve put on these 10kgs in France that I mentioned above and my cholesterol has gone to unmentionable levels.

  19. It would be nice if there was a health site tailored for us south asians, seeing as our genetic differences have led to some pretty noticeable outward effects — ie, huge gut but skinny everywhere else.

  20. Can anyone just go and ask to determine what their genetic makeup is now or is this something that is not available for use by non-technical folk?

  21. Can anyone just go and ask to determine what their genetic makeup is now or is this something that is not available for use by non-technical folk?

    Here is a non-technical test for males 20-40 years of age.

    Without bending forward can you look down and see your toes? Can you walk a mile in 10 minutes? Can you do one chin-up? Can you keep your feet still while eating a meal?*

    If you answered no to any of the above, you got a problem buddy. To paraphrase a quote I’ve used earlier, genes are the gun but environment is the trigger.

    *One doesnt shake one’s foot until one has had one’s fill. if a person is shaking his leg while chowing down, it’s a pleasure reflex, sort of like a puppy humping a foot.

  22. Rodin, D.A., Bano, G., Bland, J.M. et al. (1998) Polycystic ovaries and associated metabolic abnormalities in Indian subcontinent Asian women. Clinical Endocrinology 49(1), 91-99.

    There’s also a high percentage of Indian women with PCOS, which is somewhat related to diabetes.

  23. ive had a gut since las tyr of college. this has gotten a bit worse recently. even if pants are a little bigger than you need the gut interferes with the comfort.

  24. From the BBC article: “The sequence, discovered by a team led by Imperial College London, is carried by 50% of the population – but is a third more common in Indian Asians.”

    This seems to say that 50% of the world population and 67% of the Indian population carries this genetic sequence. So we’re not that much more badly off :-)

  25. Ancient desi physicians were the first to discover diabetes. You can make the case that the disease has been with us desis for a very long time even though its incidence in other societies was very low to practically non-existent. Now, of course, diabetes has shot through the roof among desis. One interesting hypothesis is the high carb diet that is the traditional diet for desis. It has been exacerbated by the use of high glycemic index foods post-independence such as high sugar snacks, polished rice combined with severely lowered aerobic activity levels.

  26. @SIDRA # 20,

    That was a very good comment. A major part of the problem with indians is also their diet (as the previous comment also says). I would reckon that diet is probably at least as big an issue as genetics for that large gut, skinny elsewhere phenomenon. I would highly recommend kurzweil and grossman’s advice. Has anyone tried following ray and terry’s advice here?

    @ razib # 9,

    if you shift the mean just a bit that can radically increase the proportion at a tail.

    You probably meant something else, but if you ‘radically’ increase the proportion at the tail (rather than in the center), that should shift the mean by a lot more (than if u changed things at the non-tail)

  27. the basic premise is that modern day diet developed over the past few hundreds of years (even a lot of the acknowledgedly relatively healthy stuff) is highly unnatural considering the way human body evolved on a more evolutionarily relevant time scale…

  28. ive had a gut since las tyr of college. this has gotten a bit worse recently. even if pants are a little bigger than you need the gut interferes with the comfort.

    good to know. why dont u consider eating less food and running 3 miles a day?

  29. Can you walk a mile in 10 minutes?

    walking at 6 mph? thats more of a jogging pace. If you meant jogging/running, then maybe one could argue that for a 20-40 yr old, you should consider that there is a problem if you find an 8 minute mile too difficult.

  30. Can anyone just go and ask to determine what their genetic makeup is now or is this something that is not available for use by non-technical folk?

    Yes, of course. I know of a company cofounded by segey brin’s wife that does just that: https://www.23andme.com/

    I’m pretty sure in another 5 years, you’ll have a truck load more of that stuff, if they dont already exist.

  31. Also another unrelated comment, the way the French eat butter, I think they must have super arteries. I just watched this guy eat my whole year’s quota of fat in a single meal.

    Maybe they eat butter, but eat lesser food on the whole (less carbs, sugar etc…?)

  32. Hi self-hating people,

    I read the stuff on this site for entertainment, but I had to say something about this BS.

    1] The easiest way for a researcher to get funding is to make a very weak correlation sound like a sure thing. Medical research is especially full of such sh*t.

    2] A lot of the above 40- indian descent(not “south asian”)and some of the 2nd generation (especially those above 20) have some serious self-worth issues. Given that combo, I can see how this article reached it’s conclusion.

    3] I am not oblivious to the fact that many here have a inferiority complex about themselves, especially when it comes to their physical form. Why?

    4] Eating carbohydrate rich (and protein deficient) food and not drinking alcohol will give you insulin resistance and a pot belly. Doing either or both will decrease insulin resistance and markers of chronic inflammation. If you want to believe a ideology blinded white researcher saying the contrary, go ahead. If you want to think for yourselves, look at all of the raw data with objectivity and perspective- you will be surprised.

    5] There is no good reason why people from different parts of the subcontinent all have the same problem, given that they look rather different. The only common thread between a person of indian descent in tamilnadu, gujrat, usa, guyana is that they all likely eat a carbohydrate rich diet and do not drink alcohol regularly.

    6] And then there are epigenetic issues, where a carb addict mother screws over the expression of genes in her kids.

    7] The reason why french, spanish and italians have a much lower risk of MI has to do with their regular alcohol consumption and their cusine (meat/ oil/ fat rich). You might think that italian cusine is all pasta, but that is what you see in the US, not italy.

    8] There is no special reason why a higher risk of insulin resistance and heart disease, their self inflicted habits (not their genes) are doing it to themselves. Indian doctors described it first because they tasted their patients urine and noted that it was sweet. Similar syndromes were also described by doctors in other cultures, but it was ancient indians who first made the connection between sweet urine and the disease.

    9] So watch what you eat, not how much you eat. Moderate regular drinking will also help. Exercise will help if you eat and drink right, but no amount of exercise will do you any good if you continue on a high carb + no alcohol path.

  33. dear satan,

    where did your alcohol helping with muscles and flat tummy theory come from? Are you quoting someone or did you just pull that out of your satanic ass?

    Amen, -Lord almighty.

  34. Try looking up the connections of the following on pubmed-

    alcohol, steatosis hepatitis, Glycogenesis, Gluconeogenesis, Glycogenolysis, insulin sensitivity, metabolic syndrome, C-reactive protein, adiponectin.

    Then look up what increasing sensitivity (through decreased Glycogenesis, Gluconeogenesis) does to visceral adiposity. Now find out what visceral adiposity does to insulin resistance and chronic inflammation.

    Essentially, if you do not eat too much carbs, your liver does not make a lot of glycogen. Alcohol also blocks glycogen formation. Somehow this translates into less of your calories going into fat cells, better insulin sensitivity (via higher adiponectin levels + oligomer states), lower levels of chronic inflammation. Regular moderate drinkers have a very significantly reduced risk (less than half) of vascular disease and diabetes than those who have similar lifestyles, incomes etc (but are teetollers). They also are somewhat leaner than teetollers.

  35. thanks for that info, satan. The reason I raised the question was because I heard from someone that alcohol also inhibits fat burning. This is because while your liver is busy metabolizing alcohol, it puts your fat metabolism on hold. For instance, see this bbc news report

  36. or this one for a more recent study. Also, I believe there are a lot of other ways to reduce chronic inflammation that are a lot more efficient than the purported positive long term effect of alcohol.

  37. If any of you believe what journalists and hacks (“distinguished scientists”) say about anything, you deserve to suffer the consequences of following their prescriptions. Look at the predominance of data- don’t believe someone because they are white or “academics”. They are human!! Mortal and falliable.

  38. dude satan, it seems to me you are the one suffering from an inferiority complex, not all the folks that comment above. Don’t be so oversensitive. No one has any complexes around here, except for you.

  39. Not all South Asian males have the skinny everywhere and potbelly look. I pride myself that I have escaped this destiny, primarily by being very careful about what I eat and working out daily. I am 32, 6’0′, 170lbs, with a 42 inch chest and a 31 inch waist – I can max bench 250lbs and bench 205lbs eight times; also, I have a mile time of around 5:30, even though I’m not really a miler :)

    I know that many people would look at those stats and instantly think that the writer must be a black, latino, or white guy (or maybe even an east asian guy), but rarely would one think of a South Asian…now why is that?

  40. ok…so scientists have found an obesity gene and 50% of indians carry it. sounds like fuzzy science to me. i’m sure there is an obesity gene, no doubt, BUT as for 50% of indians carrying it…i find that difficult to believe. it also sounds like an excuse to not participate in any physical exercise and simply load up on meds. high blood pressure? no problem, here are some drugs. type-2 diabetese? sure, we can control that, here are some more drugs. etc, etc…

    all these drugs CONTROL the situation(s) (and in turn may make you gain additional weight) but they do not cure them. regular exercise for at least 30 minutes a day at an intensity which leaves you out of breath for a short time; eating breakfast; maintaining a diet rich in calcium, fresh fruit & vegetables, fiber and protein; controlling portion size; and removing processed foods from your diet (with the exception of a very rare treat) is the only recipe for losing weight and keeping it off. there is no room for excuses.

  41. The idea that the Desi genetic make-up dictates whether they will have the the typical skinny-with-pot-belly look is complete and utter nonsense.

    My uncles and cousins have the typical skinny everywhere, pot belly look. Many of them have heart disease and diabetes. Genetics may play a factor, but it is a fact that they also don’t eat properly and don’t exercise at all. I’m broad shouldered and thin waisted and don’t even vaguely resemble them below the neck. I also have normal cholesterol and blood sugar levels. This is due to a very active lifestyle, and a proper balanced diet low in fat with sufficient calcium and protein. Sri and Runeatsleep have it right. There’s no substitute for proper eating and living habits.

  42. Can anyone just go and ask to determine what their genetic makeup is now or is this something that is not available for use by non-technical folk?

    You can even test your genes for fat intake and body mass index – I found one company doing right that http://www.geneplanet.com/

  43. -moderate drinking is good -indian sweets are bad -high carb is bad -pop drinks are bad -fruit juice (has no fiber like real fruits) is bad -lack of grass fed animal fat is bad -using vegetable oil/canola oil for cooking is bad -lack of resistance training is bad -wild fish is awesome

    Its the habits.