Diet Not Working? Paying Attention to Genetics Might Help

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

September is National Childhood Obesity Month and a great time to reflect on how you, as an adult and/or a parent, are doing with your own weight-loss goals. Childhood obesity is more likely to occur in households that have one or both parents battling weight issues. In the past I reviewed "The 9 Best 2016 Diets," but as the saying goes, “the best diet is the one that actually works for you.” A recent Baylor University study suggests that many of us adopt wrong strategies, with deprivation setting us up for failure. A new study suggests that a diet’s impact depends largely on the genetics of the person following that diet.

Is there a "best diet?"

Dieting response is individualized. A weight-loss diet heavy on meat protein and very low in grains that works for one person might yield poor results for another.

When the term best diet is used, it should mean that the diet has the backing of research, testing large groups of individuals who largely experience similar benefits in terms of weight loss or improved health. The Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diet both seem to fit the best diet criteria, but it’s conceivable that these diets may not yield the same results for everyone. Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration 2016 Dietary Guidelines, though based on average response and the recommendations of a number of experts, may not be applicable to everyone.

Genetic Diversity: Not everyone gains or loses weight the same wayA 2011 s tudy floated the notion of using genetics to guide food choices. The study suggested that if we could figure out how our genes respond to food, we could figure out the choices that either optimize or impair cellular responses.

Researchers often use mice in studies involving food and weight, because these animals have similar susceptibilities to obesity and metabolic dysfunction. They also have genetic diversity, as do humans.

In the 2011 study, researchers used four mice strains. All the mice in each strain shared the same genetics, which would represent the genetics of one human type. Over a six-month period, mice from each strain were fed one of four unique diets: Western, traditional Japanese, a high fat/low carb Atkin’s-type diet and standard mouse chow (the control group). There were no limits on portion sizes, but the researchers did track the amount of food consumed.

The researchers kept close tabs on a number of health-related measurements. They found that the impact of each diet was significantly correlated to the particular strain of mice. Mice that ate the Western style diet, not surprisingly, showed negative health impacts, but the degree or severity of those impacts varied based on the particular strain of the mouse. (One strain of mice was resistant to the anticipated negative health impact of the American diet.)

Specific obesity, fatty liver and metabolic dysfunction drivers

Both the Western and Atkin’s style (ketogenic) diet, which are high in meat-based protein and fat, had different health impacts on different mice strains. One strain had a negative outcome from eating the Western diet, developing obesity and fatty liver disease while experiencing no negative consequences from the ketogenic diet. Another strain seemed quite healthy after eating the Western diet, but developed obesity and signs of metabolic syndrome on the ketogenic diet.

Overall, the ketogenic diet seemed to increase calorie burn in most of the mice strains, but some mice were driven to overeat tremendous quantities of food, so despite the metabolic edge, they still developed obesity. The researchers believe the same findings would be found in human counterparts.

One optimal diet may not fit all

As a nutritionist, I use cutting-edge information in order to make dietary recommendations. Those recommendations sometimes need to be modified because, despite the supportive science, the diet doesn’t result in the anticipated weight loss or health goals. Other recent research also suggests that receiving personalized nutrition advice can help people to make healthier food choices. The researchers believe their findings suggest the need to identify precise, personalized nutrition for individuals based on genetics, especially those challenged with weight and health issues. Their hope is that further research will identify genetic tests that can identify best eating practices and the best diet for individual needs.

Current best dietary outline

Current science supports limiting added sugars, consuming several servings of fruits and vegetables daily, limiting meat protein in favor of fish, eggs and plant-based protein, choosing heart healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and avocadoes, consuming mostly whole grains, including servings of low fat or fat free dairy products and drinking sufficient water each day (not sodas or sweetened juices).

Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert.As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”