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Samoa’s ‘obesity gene’ downplayed

Saturday 13 August 2016 | Published in Regional

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SAMOA – Just because you were born a Samoan doesn’t means you a destined to be obese.

The insinuation that Samoans are bound to be obese due to a genetic variant that affects energy metabolism and fat storage, is only part of recent medical findings.

American researchers recently announced they have discovered that close to half of all Samoans have a gene that increases their risk of becoming obese.

The study gave those who have it a 35 per cent higher chance than others of being obese.

The revelation helped explain why 80 per cent of Samoan men and 91 per cent of Samoan women were overweight or obese in 2010, the researchers said.

The headlines the study prompted around the world have been tempered in a statement from the study team.

Headed by Stephen McGarvey, Professor in the Brown University School of Public Health – with a team from the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Cincinnati and Yale University, as well as Samoan government officials – the study was further explained last week in a press statement.

“Don’t take this as, ‘you are Samoan, so you are fated to be obese’,” says Professor McGarvey.

“We don’t think that’s true. We don’t have any evidence that that’s the case,” he added.

The statement also points out that the study included the input of top Samoan medical specialists which reported a genetic variant that affects energy metabolism and fat storage which partly explains why Samoans have among the world’s highest levels of obesity.

The Samoan specialists included Leausa Dr Take Naseri, an internist and consultant specialist public health physician and currently director general of the Ministry of Health; Muagututi‘a Sefuiva Reupena, chief of Samoa’s Bureau of Statistics; Satupa‘itea Viali, a consultant specialist cardiologist in Samoa and John Tuitele, a public health physician in the American Samoa Department of Health. The team pinpointed a single genetic variant on chromosome 5 that, according to the researchers’ estimate, is associated with about 35 per cent higher odds of being obese compared to not having the gene variant. While this elevated risk is much greater than any other known common BMI (Body Mass Index) risk variant, overall it explains only about two per cent of the variation in BMI among Samoans.

Other factors such as diet, physical activity and early life nutrition and growth are important, and their influences on obesity in the context of this gene variant will be investigated in future studies, McGarvey said in a press statement.

“Just because you are Samoan, you are not necessarily fated to be obese,” he said.

When the findings of the study were released last month, Samoa’s government had already taken steps to address the threat of obesity on the people, according to Leausa, Samoa’s Director General of Health.

“The research findings may explain part of the bigger picture and it’s just one part of the many reasons for the high levels of BMI and obesity among our people.

“At most it may account for a somewhat elevated risk where many other factors such as diet and physical activity come into play. A healthy diet and physical activity are still key to maintaining a healthy weight.”

“The exercise programme involving villages is one approach which includes regular exercise coupled with healthy diets.

“We have several programmes targeting children between years one to eight years old.

“We know that Samoa is one of the countries that is in the top five and we’re looking at our future generations, so we don’t have that in the children – we are seeing the changes.

“The programmes entail talking about diet, talking about good health and also looking at increasing their physical activity. The programme was launched by the prime minister and he had urged parents for their support.

“I know most are on processed foods now. The prime minister feels that most of this stems from what the parents are buying for the kids.

“The ministry is continuing its public awareness programmes to encourage parents to adopt healthy diets for their children that include a balanced and nutritional school lunch.

“Legislation has also been passed by parliament to address the rising incidents of obesity and other non-communicable diseases.

“We are fully aware of the situation and we are reiterating repeated calls from the prime minister for our people to seriously think twice about their eating habits and for regular medical checks up with their doctors.

“We also acknowledge different groups and organisations here in Samoa that have lead by example in promoting physical exercises to lose weight through boot camps and nutritional and dietary education,” Leausa concluded.

- Samoa Observer/PNC