Summary: A new study sheds light on the possible genetic basis underlying an individual’s adherence to a strict vegetarian diet.
Analyzing genetic data from more than 5,000 strict vegetarians and 329,455 controls, the researchers identified genes significantly associated with vegetarianism, primarily affecting lipid metabolism and brain function.
Positioning genetics as a plausible factor influencing food choices beyond moral and religious considerations, the groundbreaking study paves the way for a nuanced understanding of diet and genetics.
This insight prompts further research to elucidate the physiological differences between vegetarians and non-vegetarians, which can inform the development of tailored dietary recommendations and improved meat substitutes.
- Genetic predisposition: The study reveals potential genetic predisposition to influence vegetarianism, identifying three genes significantly and 31 genes associated with vegetarianism, many of which affect lipid metabolism and brain function.
- Vegetarian Diversity: Despite the growing popularity and health benefits of a vegetarian diet, the majority of self-identified vegetarians often consume some form of meat, suggesting possible biological or environmental factors in strict adherence to the diet.
- Future Implications: While this study provides pioneering insight into the genetics of dietary behavior, further research is essential to understand the physiological nuances between vegetarians and non-vegetarians, which will shape future dietary guidelines and improve meat substitute production.
Source: Northwestern University
From the Impossible Burger to “Meatless Mondays,” meat-free is definitely trending. But a person’s genetic makeup plays a role in determining whether they can stick to a strict vegetarian diet, a new Northwestern Medicine study finds.
The findings open the door to further studies that could have important implications for dietary recommendations and the production of meat substitutes.
“Can all humans live longer on a strict vegetarian diet? That’s a question that hasn’t been seriously studied,” said corresponding study author Dr. Nabeel Yaseen, professor of pathology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
A large proportion (about 48 to 64%) of self-identified “vegetarians” report eating fish, poultry, and/or red meat, suggesting that environmental or biological constraints override their preference for vegetarianism, according to Yassin.
“There seem to be more vegans than there actually are, and we think people might be missing out because there’s something difficult here.”
Many genes involved in lipid metabolism, brain function
To determine whether genetics contributes to a person’s ability to follow a vegetarian diet, the scientists compared UK Biobank genetic data from 5,324 strict vegetarians (who eat no fish, poultry or red meat) with 329,455 controls. All study participants were white Caucasians to achieve a homogenous sample and avoid confounding by race.
The study identified three genes significantly associated with vegetarianism and 31 potentially associated genes. Many of these genes, including the top two (NPC1 and RMC1), are involved in lipid (fat) metabolism and/or brain function, the study found.
“One area where plant products differ from meat is the complex lipids,” Yassin said. “My guess is that meat may contain the essential fatty acid(s) that some people need. People who favor genetic vegetarianism can synthesize these elements endogenously. However, at this time, this is just speculation and much more work needs to be done to understand the physiology of the plant.
The study will be published in the October 4 issue of the journal PLOS ONE*. This is the first fully peer-reviewed and indexed study to look at the link between genetics and a strict vegetarian diet.
Why do most people eat meat?
Religious and moral considerations are the main motivations behind adopting a vegetarian diet, and recent research has provided evidence for its health benefits. Although vegetarianism is growing in popularity, vegetarians remain a minority population worldwide. For example, in the United States, vegetarians make up about 3 to 4% of the population. In the UK, 2.3% of adults and 1.9% of children are vegetarian.
This raises the question why most people still prefer to eat meat products. The driving factor for food and drink preference is not just taste, but how an individual’s body metabolizes it, Yaseen said. For example, when trying wine or coffee for the first time, most people don’t find them enjoyable, but over time, a taste develops because of how the alcohol or caffeine makes them feel.
“I think there’s something similar with meat,” Yaseen said. “Maybe you have a certain component—I’m guessing a lipid component—that makes you need it and crave it.”
If genetics affects whether someone is a vegetarian, what does that mean for people who don’t eat meat for religious or moral reasons?
“While religious and moral considerations certainly play an important role in the motivation to adopt a vegetarian diet, the ability to adhere to such a diet is controlled by genetics,” Yaseen said.
“We hope that future studies will lead to a better understanding of the physiological differences between vegetarians and non-vegetarians, thus enabling us to make personalized dietary recommendations and develop better meat substitutes.”
The study, titled “Genetics of Vegetarianism: A Genome-Wide Association Study,” was conducted in collaboration with scientists from Washington University in St. Louis and Edinburgh, United Kingdom.
About this diet and genetics research news
Author: Christine Samuelson
Source: Northwestern University
Contact: Christine Samuelson – Northwestern University
Image: The film is credited to Neuronews
Original Research: Open access.
“Genetics of vegetarianism: a genome-wide association studyNabeel Yasin and others. PLOS ONE
Genetics of vegetarianism: a genome-wide association study
Considerable evidence points to the heritability of dietary preferences. Although vegetarianism has been practiced in various societies for thousands of years, its practitioners remain a minority population worldwide, and the role of genetics in the choice of a vegetarian diet is not well understood.
Dietary choices involve interactions between the physiological effects of foods, their metabolism, and taste perception, all of which are strongly influenced by genetics. In this study, we used a genome-wide association study (GWAS) to identify loci associated with strict vegetarianism in UK Biobank participants.
Comparing 5,324 strict vegetarians with 329,455 controls, we identified a SNP on chromosome 18 significantly associated with vegetarianism at a genome-wide level (rs72884519, β = -0.11, B = 4.997 x 10-8), and an additional 201 significantly significant variants. Four genes are associated with rs72884519: TMEM241, RIOK3, NPC1And RMC1. Using the Functional Mapping and Annotation (FUMA) platform and the Multi-marker Analysis of Genomic Annotation (MAGMA) tool, we identified 34 genes with a potential role in vegetarianism, 3 of which were GWAS-significant based on gene-level analysis: RIOK3, RMC1And NPC1.
including several genes associated with vegetarianism TMEM241, NPC1And RMC1As lipids have important functions in metabolism and brain function, differences in lipid metabolism and their effects on the brain may underlie the ability to adhere to a vegetarian diet.
These results support a role of genetics in the choice of vegetarian diet and open the door for future studies aimed at further elucidating the physiological pathways involved in vegetarianism.