Table of Contents
Is Appetite Genetic?
Date of Content: October 24, 2023
Written by: Avanthika Nityanand
Reviewed by: Maarit Tiirikainen, PhD
What is Appetite?
Appetite refers to the natural desire to satisfy a bodily need, especially for food. It is a complex mechanism influenced by the central nervous system and hormones, signaling when to eat (hunger) and when to stop eating (satiety).
Is Appetite Genetic?
The role of genetics in determining appetite and eating behaviors has piqued scientists’ interest, especially in the global obesity epidemic. The interplay between genes, environment, and individual choices paints a multifaceted picture of appetite regulation.
Every individual has a unique genetic makeup inherited from their parents. This genetic blueprint dictates various aspects of physiology and behavior, including appetite.
Research has identified several genes associated with appetite regulation, hunger, satiety, and specific food preferences. These genetic markers can predispose individuals to certain eating behaviors or metabolic rates, which can, in turn, affect body weight and overall health.
Twin and Family Studies
Findings from twin studies indicate that genes play a significant role in the brain’s control of appetite, highlighting the importance of genetic predispositions in the risk of obesity.
Further, a review paper published in September 2023 observed that traits like satiety responsiveness and food responsiveness had a heritability of 72% and 59%, respectively.
Genes Associated with Appetite
The FTO gene, which stands for fat mass and obesity-associated gene, has attracted significant attention in obesity research due to its association with body weight.
A 2009 study examined the influence of the rs9939609 variant of the FTO gene on food intake. The study showed that individuals with the TT genotype consumed less food than AT and AA genotype holders. A 2014 randomized clinical control study showed that individuals carrying the FTO rs9939609 A allele may experience significant food cravings when opting for a low-calorie, high-protein weight-loss diet. A 2014 GWAS also observed a consistent link between FTO gene variants, appetite, and satiety.
The MC4R gene encodes the melanocortin 4 (MC4) receptor. The MC4R receptor binds with alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone, also known as a-MSH. This receptor is in the hypothalamus of the brain. It plays a pivotal role in regulating food consumption, metabolism, and reproductive actions, among other functions.
In a study involving 18,600 participants from various European nations, the rs17782313 C variant heightened feelings of hunger, the tendency to snack more frequently, and consuming larger quantities of food. Another research, which included 5,724 women, established that this variant was associated with consuming more calories and amount of dietary fat.
Further, a comprehensive review of multiple clinical trials acknowledged the connection between rs17782313 and eating behaviors. So, the presence of the C allele at rs17782313 correlates with obesity and is likely a consequence of unhealthy snacking habits and higher consumption of overall calories and dietary fat.
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The LEP gene codes for leptin, a hormone predominantly produced in adipose (fat) cells. It is crucial in regulating appetite, energy expenditure, and body weight. In other words, leptin is the full signal and opposes ghrelin, the hunger hormone. Together, these two hormones regulate appetite and balance energy expenditure in the body.
Variations in the LEP gene and its receptor (LEPR) have been of interest in numerous studies investigating obesity and eating behaviors. Various SNPs in the LEP gene correlate to body weight, with rs10244329, rs3828942, rs2167270, rs2071045, and rs4731426 being particularly significant.
Broadly, variations that result in heightened leptin production typically correlate with an elevated starting weight, a heightened sense of hunger, and a propensity to regain weight after completing a weight loss regime. The specific alleles associated with high initial leptin levels and increased weight are rs10244329-T, rs3828942-G, rs2167270-A, rs2071045-C, and rs4731426-G.
Non-Genetic Factors Affecting Appetite
While influenced by genetics, appetite is also significantly affected by various non-genetic factors. Here is an overview of some prominent non-genetic determinants that play a role in appetite regulation:
Several hormones directly affect appetite regulation, including ghrelin (often referred to as the hunger hormone), leptin, insulin, and peptide YY. Fluctuations in these hormones due to disease, lifestyle, or other factors can directly influence appetite.
What you eat can impact your appetite. For example, protein-rich foods are more satiating than carbohydrate or fat-rich foods. Dietary fiber, found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, can also promote feelings of fullness.
Dehydration can sometimes be mistaken for hunger. Drinking enough water throughout the day can help in regulating appetite.
Lack of sleep can disrupt the balance of hunger-regulating hormones, leading to increased appetite and cravings for energy-dense foods.
Emotional and Psychological Factors
Stress, anxiety, depression, and other emotional states can influence eating habits. Some people may eat more when stressed or depressed (emotional eating), while others may lose their appetite.
Some medications, including certain antidepressants, antipsychotics, corticosteroids, and antihistamines, can affect appetite.
Exercise can influence appetite in different ways. It can suppress appetite in the short term but increase hunger as the body works to replenish its energy stores.
Exposure to food advertisements, the sight or smell of food, and social eating situations can stimulate appetite even if we’re not physically hungry.
Various illnesses, from infections to more chronic conditions like hyperthyroidism or cancer, can affect appetite. While some conditions increase appetite, others diminish it.
The gut microbiome, comprising trillions of bacteria residing in our intestines, plays a role in energy metabolism and has been linked to appetite regulation. Disruptions to the balance of these bacteria can influence appetite.
Cultural and Social Factors
Cultural norms, societal pressures, and traditions can dictate when, what, and how much we eat, influencing our appetite and eating habits.
Appetite and dietary needs can change with age. For instance, as people age, metabolic rate decreases, and there might be a reduced need for calories, impacting appetite.
A Note on Prenatal Health and Appetite
Prenatal health and its influence on appetite is a topic of significant research and interest. Maternal health, nutrition, stress levels, and other factors determine the fetal environment during pregnancy. This environment plays a crucial role in shaping the development of various systems, including the appetite regulation system of the fetus. Here is a breakdown of how prenatal health can influence appetite:
Fetal programming or developmental programming refers to the theory that exposures during critical windows of fetal development can have long-term consequences on the health of the new individual. Specifically, prenatal exposures, including maternal diet, stress, and toxins, can cause epigenetic changes in the fetal genome, and these changes are heritable. The consequences of prenatal exposure can include changes in appetite regulation, metabolism, and the risk of obesity and related conditions.
Maternal undernutrition or overnutrition can lead to appetite dysregulation in children. For example, children of mothers who experienced famine during pregnancy have been shown to have a higher risk of obesity and related metabolic disorders. Similarly, maternal obesity or excessive weight gain during pregnancy can predispose the child to obesity and increased appetite.
Maternal health and diet can influence the hormonal environment of the fetus. For example, changes in maternal levels of leptin, insulin, and ghrelin, which are all involved in appetite regulation, can impact the developing appetite control systems of the fetus.
The placenta is pivotal in nutrient and oxygen delivery to the fetus. Any compromise in its function due to maternal health issues can impact fetal development, including the systems that regulate appetite.
Stress and Cortisol
Maternal stress during pregnancy can elevate cortisol levels, cross the placenta, and impact fetal brain development, including regions involved in appetite regulation.
Emerging research suggests that the maternal gut microbiome during pregnancy can influence the health of an infant’s gut microbiome. It, in turn, can play a role in appetite regulation and metabolic health later in life.
While prenatal health is crucial, postnatal factors like breastfeeding can influence appetite regulation. Breastfed babies might have different appetites and feeding behaviors compared to formula-fed babies.
- Appetite refers to the natural desire to satisfy a bodily need, especially for food.
- Our genetic blueprint can influence various aspects of physiology and behavior, including appetite.
- Pivotal genes that influence appetite are MC4R, FTO, and LEP.
- Several non-genetic factors like hormonal fluctuations, age, sleep, and diet can affect appetite
- Prenatal and early infant health can significantly impact an individual’s appetite.
*Understanding your genetics can offer valuable insights into your well-being, but it is not deterministic. Your traits can be influenced by the complex interplay involving nature, lifestyle, family history, and others.
Our reports and suggestions do not diagnose or treat any health conditions or provide any medical advice. Consult with a healthcare professional before making any major lifestyle changes or if you have any other concerns about your results.