Can a Blood Test Help You Lose Weight?

DNA tests may one day tell which diet and exercise regimens work—and which don’t

Imagine one day being able to take a blood test—or even getting your cheek swabbed—and finding out exactly what you need to do to shed those extra pounds.

The science may not be there yet, but a weight-loss test isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. Research is uncovering more and more links between various biomarkers and how your body burns off, or retains, fat (1)(2)(3).

The formula for losing weight may seem simple—exercise more and eat less—but the reality for most people is much more complex. Those two things, diet and exercise, can be combined in any number of ways for a seemingly infinite number of weight-loss programs.

Some of them even work—just not for everybody. Two people can follow the same regimen to the letter and end up with different results: Why did she lose 20 pounds and not me?

Genes control a number of factors related to weight-loss, from appetite to metabolism to stick-to-itiveness. However, recent research is making the case that these differences are not only in our DNA, but how our body expresses that DNA—a field known as epigenetics.

“In general, epigenetic markers may help to explain the reasons for some people to become more susceptible to a specific disease, or to design strategies for individualized treatment,” said Dr. Amelia Martí, a professor of physiology at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, and a leading researcher into the link between weight-loss and genetics. “The good news about epigenetic markers is that they could be modified by lifestyle factors [such as] diet, physical activity and also by drug treatments.”

In a new paper published in The FASEB Journal, Dr. Martí and colleagues found that certain epigenetic biomarkers predicted success in one teen weight-loss study, called EVAYSON. In doing so, they may have taken one of the first steps towards genetic weight-loss screening.

“We were able to detect a predisposition in some participants to achieve a major benefit after a weight loss intervention,” she said.

The EVASYON study followed 204 overweight and obese adolescents from five Spanish cities through an intensive 10-week diet program and a year-long follow-up. Blood samples were taken before and after the treatment period for comparison in various studies, including the present one.

The researchers selected the 24 teens that had the best and worst results with the diet, and then added 83 more to the sample for comparison. When comparing the DNA samples, the authors found five biomarkers in particular that seemed to predict weight loss.

This finding builds on another recent study by the same team linking weight loss in the EVASYON study to differences in the DNA itself, which they tallied into a genetic “score.”

The use of a genetic rating to predict weight loss is still in its early stages, but the concept isn’t anything new. Several genes have been found to be associated with body mass index (BMI). In fact, studies of identical twins suggest that half or more of the differences in BMI among people may be genetic.

“If you've ever wondered why some people seem to do so well on a diet and exercise plan and other fail so miserably, then now we know that the way that genes express themselves (via epigenetics) plays an important role,” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., editor-in-chief of The FASEB Journal in a press release. “This report moves us a step closer [to] when we will be able to prescribe a weight loss program tailored to more than just the lifestyle and conditioning level of the patient, but also to his or her particular genetic and epigenetic profile.”

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