Genes that make you fat, but keep you healthy

J Intern Med. 2018 Nov;284(5):450-463. doi: 10.1111/joim.12827. Epub 2018 Oct 2.


Obesity prevalence continues to rise worldwide, posing a substantial burden on people's health. However, up to 45% of obese individuals do not suffer from cardiometabolic complications, also called the metabolically healthy obese (MHO). Concurrently, up to 30% of normal-weight individuals demonstrate cardiometabolic risk factors that are generally observed in obese individuals, the metabolically obese normal weight (MONW). Besides lifestyle, environmental factors and demographic factors, innate biological mechanisms are known to contribute to the aetiology of the MHO and MONW phenotypes, as well. Experimental studies in animal models have shown that adipose tissue expandability, fat distribution, adipogenesis, adipose tissue vascularization, inflammation and fibrosis, and mitochondrial function are the main mechanisms that uncouple adiposity from its cardiometabolic comorbidities. We reviewed current genetic association studies to expand insights into the biology of MHO/MONW phenotypes. At least four genetic loci were identified through genome-wide association studies for body fat percentage (BF%) of which the BF%-increasing allele was associated with a protective effect on glycemic and lipid outcomes. For some, this association was mediated through favourable effects on body fat distribution. Other studies that characterized the genetic susceptibility of insulin resistance found that a higher susceptibility was associated with lower overall adiposity due to less fat accumulation at hips and legs, suggesting that an impaired capacity to store fat subcutaneously or a preferential storage in the intra-abdominal cavity may be metabolically harmful. Clearly, more work remains to be done in this field, first through gene discovery and subsequently through functional follow-up of identified genes.

Keywords: cardiovascular risk factors; diabetes; epidemiology; genetics; metabolism & endocrinology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Genes / genetics
  • Genes / physiology*
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / genetics
  • Genetic Variation
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Humans
  • Obesity / genetics*
  • Obesity, Metabolically Benign / genetics*
  • Phenotype