Sharing Genetic Risk Information May Help Motivate Weight Loss

Posted on: November 28, 2016 Topics: obesity

Providing personalized genetic risk information about obesity may help to motivate people to lose weight, depending on how it is presented, according to a new study led by a School of Public Health researcher.

The study, published in the journal Obesity, found that people who were given information about their genetic risk had greater intentions to lose weight than those who received no information, those who received only lifestyle risk information, or those who received both genetic and lifestyle risk information.

The study suggests that providing patients with risk estimates from different sources may result in worse outcomes because of the “mixed messages” that may be conveyed.

“Provision of genetic information was more effective at influencing weight loss intentions, particularly when presented alone and not in combination with lifestyle risk,” the study says. It found that the genetic information was of particular benefit to healthy weight individuals, rather than those who were overweight or obese.

The study findings did not support the idea that telling people they had a heightened genetic risk could lead to “fatalistic” reactions—nor did they indicate that people with a low risk would lose motivation because of “false reassurance.”

“Our results support the findings from other obesity studies indicating no such adverse outcomes from conveying genetic risk information,” said lead author Catharine Wang, associate professor of community health sciences.

Instead, she said, conveying genetic information “may enhance the success rate of lifestyle interventions and provide additional motivation to help individuals plan for healthy weight maintenance.”

Wang and colleagues noted that some prior studies had found no discernable impact of personalized genetic risk information on weight loss motivation. They said those findings might have been skewed because they focused on overweight individuals, while this study included people of healthy weight. A total of 696 people of various weights participated in the study. Those who were underweight or of normal weight were most influenced by genetic risk information.

“Genetic risk information may be more salient for those who are not yet overweight and viewed as a reason to take action to reduce the likelihood of weight gain,” the study says.

The findings suggest that the way genetic risk information is conveyed is important, and that a better understanding is needed of how people process information about risk for various health conditions, the authors said.

“There is a need to re-frame the primary question of clinical utility from, ‘Does genetic information motivate?’ to ones that ask, ‘How might genetic information motivate? And for whom?’” the study says.

Co-authors from SPH include: Tricia Norkunas, a project manager in community health sciences; Ching-Ti Liu, associate professor of biostatistics; and Michael Winter, associate director of the Data Coordinating Center. Other researchers are from the Coriell Institute for Medical Research, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Lisa Chedekel


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