Friday, July 17, 2015

Can DNA testing help you to lose weight ?

VLCC is one of India's largest beauty, weight loss and fitness chains . They have launched a new product called VLCC DNA Slim and they took out a full page ad in the Times of India today to promote this.  I was intrigued about how DNA testing could be used to lose weight, and did some online research about this test.

There's no information on their website about DNA Slim - their site only talks about DNA Fit. I guess some smart marketing whiz kid decided to re-christen the same test as DNA Slim , presumably because there's more money in weight loss than fitness . Someone needs to tell the VLCC webmaster to update their website !

The seductive message behind the VLCC ad is that every person is different , and that their ability to lose weight is tied to their genes . According to VLCC , their new DNA Slim test will allow people to figure out what method will work best for them , so that they can then adopt this. This is their scientific spiel, and seems like a great idea . However, the reality is that they are selling false hope in the garb of pseudoscience and extremely sophisticated quackery .

The only "scientific research" on their website about the DNA test they offer talks about Stanford University, and some doctor named Kazuko Masuo, but there's no published reference given , which is a major red flag. If this has been scientifically proven, then where are the medical journal articles documenting how and why this test works ?

The weight loss market is a billion-dollar business, and while it’s possible to help people lose weight , most people find it extremely difficult to keep that weight off for multiple reasons . However, every fat person will blame their “ metabolism “ for their fatness. In an earlier generation, the fashionable culprit was the thyroid gland ! Everyone who is fat will talk endlessly about how they put on weight , even though they don't eat anything and exercise regularly . However, if caloric intake is more than caloric expenditure, you are going to put on weight , irrespective of your diet, exercise, metabolism or your genes.

However, putting a scientific spin is an extremely clever marketing move , because every obese person wants something to blame for their inability to shed those extra pounds. And if it’s your DNA at fault, then what can you do about it ( except to perhaps drown your sorrows in a calorie-laden drink about how unlucky you are that you have inherited “fat genes”. )

The great thing about genetic tests is that no one really understands them. There's been a lot of hype about genetic testing after the Human Genome project "cracked the code", and everyone makes tall claims about these tests. After all, isn't DNA the stuff of life ? However, the real life value of these tests is   still unproven, because biology is very complex, and a reductionist approach is too simplistic to work. The layperson doesn’t have a clue that the tests mean – and neither do most doctors. If the DNA test results are attractively packaged in a clever format , it is easy to take lots of people for a long , long ride , and to make a lot of money in the process . After all, no matter what the test results are, the advice is going to be the same stuff we already know – eat healthily and become more
active !

Putting on weight is a multifactorial problem , which is impacted by many things . While it's true that heredity impacts obesity, there are lots of other things as well , such as your diet , how much you exercise and how disciplined you are. None of this can be summarised in a DNA test ! However, even if the test has no scientifically validity,  it will become extremely popular , because it's being marketed so cleverly , and VLCC will continue happily smiling all the way to the bank. VLCC is not the only one, of course, and the GeneSupport lab in Pune also offers The Weight Loss Panel, a genetic profiling test . My prediction is that we are going to see lots of these tests from many companies who are going to hop on this bandwagon, and help lots of gullible people lose some money !

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