But don’t bust out a beer and a pie just yet.

A research article published today in Cell Reports by the United Kingdom’s Exeter University, has found the “A version” of the FGF21 gene is found in approximately 20 per cent of the European population. While it is linked to greater sugar consumption, this study found that people with this gene variant have a lower percentage of total body fat.

Overall, the findings of the research were a surprise, says Timothy Frayling, a molecular geneticist at the University of Exeter Medical School and the study’s first author.

“This goes against the current perception that eating sugar is bad for health. It may reduce body fat because the same allele (An allele is an alternative form of a gene – one member of a pair – that is located at a specific position on a specific chromosome) also results in a lower consumption of protein and fat in the diet.

“But whilst this version of the gene lowers body fat, it also redistributes fat to the upper body, where it’s more likely to cause harm, including higher blood pressure.”

The authors say that studying different variants of FGF21 is important because it can help uncover some of the genetic and biological aspects of obesity.

The FGF21 hormone, which is made mostly in the liver, has multiple functions. It acts on the hypothalamus in the brain to suppress sugar and alcohol intake, stimulates glucose update by fat cells, and acts as an insulin sensitizer.

The investigators used data from the UK Biobank to look at associations between different versions of the FGF21 gene, diet, body composition, and blood pressure. Their analysis included more than 450,000 study participants.

“Because this study has so many people in it, it gave us enough individuals to be confident in the associations we were seeing,” says Niels Grarup, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen and one of the paper’s co-authors. “The data included a food frequency questionnaire from 175,000 people and blood pressure measures for everyone included in the analysis.”

One limitation of the study is that the researchers were not able to show the mechanism by which FGF21 alters the amount and distribution of body fat. Future research will focus on this aspect.

Research from pharmaceutical companies is currently under way to develop drugs to target or replace FGF21, especially as an approach for treating diabetes.

“Our studies could refocus those efforts by revealing potential benefits and unintended side effects of manipulating this hormone,” Frayling says.

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