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15-02-2019

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight in 2016. Of these, over 650 million were obese and therefore at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and some forms of cancers. In one of the largest studies of its kind, researchers have looked into the reasons why some people are more likely to gain weight while others manage to stay thin.

Based on the University of Cambridge press release

"It’s easy to rush to judgement and criticise people for their weight, but the science shows that things are far more complex. We have far less control over our weight than we might wish to think.” - prof. Sadaf Farooqi

The rise of obesity in our society can be attributed to changes in our environment. The mechanisms behind weight gain and loss are rather complex with origins mostly identified in our consumption of high calorie foods and a more sedentary lifestyle. However, when it comes to the way our metabolism burns calories and maintains our weight, we are not all equals, researchers found.

Supported by the European Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, Prof. Sadaf Farooqi established the “Study into Lean and Thin Subjects” (STILTS) to better understand the mechanisms behind some people’s resistance to obesity. With her team, she was able to recruit 2,000 healthy people with no eating disorder and a Body Mass Index (BMI) under 18, considered as underweight for Europe according to the WHO, to compose what is thought the only cohort of its kind in the world.

With the help of general practitioners, the team took saliva samples to enable DNA analysis and profiled participants with questions about their general health and lifestyle.

The researchers then compared the DNA of some 14,000 individuals – 1,622 thin volunteers from STILTS cohort, 1,985 severely obese people and a further 10,433 of normal weight, used as a common set of controls. In a paper published in PLOS genetics in January 2019, the team reports on several common genetic variants they identified as playing a role in obesity. They also show that the heritability of thinness is comparable to that of severe obesity.

This research shows for the first time that healthy thin people are generally thin because they have a lower burden of genes that increase a person’s chances of being overweight and not because they are morally superior, as some people like to suggest,” says Professor Farooqi. “It’s easy to rush to judgement and criticise people for their weight, but the science shows that things are far more complex. We have far less control over our weight than we might wish to think.

Further studies with a focus on thin people could lead to new ways of understanding how human metabolism regulates body weight and potentially to the discovery of new drugs and strategies targeting severe obesity.

Audio interview June 2014

About the grant

The European Research Council encourages the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding on the sole basis of scientific excellence.
The grants are awarded through open competition to projects led by early-career and established researchers worldwide interested to work within Europe.
Prof. Sadaf Farooqi received a grant open to young scientists with a scientific record of accomplishment showing promise and an excellent research proposal.
Prof. Farooqi led her research at the University of Cambridge.
More information about the grant.

More about the research
Cambridge press release
Scientific publication:
Genetic architecture of human thinness compared to severe obesity