Sign up for CNN’s Eat, But Better: Mediterranean Style. Our eight-part guide shows you a delicious expert-backed eating lifestyle that will add health to your life.
According to a new study, going meatless may not be a matter of choice.
The study, published Wednesday in PLOS One, found that all four genes are associated with how well one can adhere to a vegetarian lifestyle.
“Genetics plays a significant role in veganism at this time and it can be said that some people are genetically better suited to veganism than others,” said the lead study author. Dr. Nabeel YasinProfessor of Pathology, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
In addition to religious and cultural practices, health, moral and environmental reasons have all figured in motivating people to reduce or eliminate meat consumption — but they haven’t always been so successful, Yaseen said in an email.
“A large proportion of self-described vegetarians actually report consuming meat products when answering detailed questionnaires,” he said. “This suggests that many people who want to be vegetarian are unable to do so, and our data suggest that genes are also part of the cause.”
study It’s not possible to identify who is or isn’t genetically predisposed to veganism, but researchers hope future work will tackle that question, Yaseen said.
This could lead to better health information in the future, said Dr. Jose Artovas, director of nutrition and genetics and professor of nutrition and genetics at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Artovas was not involved in the study.
“This study highlights the complex relationship between our genes and our dietary choices, and in the future, we may have personalized dietary recommendations based on genetic predispositions,” he said.
Knowing the genetic link could help improve personalized health advice, Yaseen said.
The researchers used data from the UK Biobank, a large biomedical database and research resource that follows people over long periods of time.
More than 5,000 strict vegetarians, defined as those who ate no animal meat in the past year, compared with more than 300,000 people in a control group who had eaten meat in the previous year, according to the study.
The researchers identified three genes that were strongly identified and another 31 genes that could be identified with vegetarianism. In a genetic analysis, the researchers found that vegetarians had different variants of these genes than non-vegetarians.
That may be due to how different people process lipids or fats.
Many of the genes found in the study to be associated with vegetarianism are related to metabolizing lipids, Yaseen said.
Plants and meat differ in the complexity of their lipids, he said, so some people may genetically need some of the lipids provided by meat.
“We hypothesize that this is due to genetic differences in fat metabolism and how it affects brain function, but more research is needed to investigate this hypothesis,” Yaseen said.
The study has limitations, Artovas said.
Everyone in the analysis was white, which Yassin said kept the sample homogenous to avoid cultural practices confounding the results.
But it holds data applicable to the entire population, Artovas said.
While the study doesn’t provide a definitive answer, it’s an important insight into nutrition, he said.
“This study shines a light on a relatively unexplored area of research: the genetics behind food preferences,” Artovas said. “The association of genetic variants with long-term strict vegetarianism suggests a biological basis for this dietary choice, beyond cultural, ethical or environmental reasons.”