Markers in your bodily fluids can detect obesity, says scientists who found that a simple urine sample may predict your risk for the disease

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Corbis Images

What if you could determine your risk for future disease, simply by peeing in a cup? That may soon be a reality, thanks to a new test developed by a team of obesity researchers who found that certain markers in urine, called metabolites, can help predict your risk of future obesity. According to the scientists, this test could be a better indicator of your disease risk than your genes, which only account for a mere 1.4 percent of your potential health. While, of course, there are many factors that go into gaining weight-including genetics, metabolism, gut bacteria, and lifestyle choices like diet and exercise-they say that this test is designed to look mainly at the influence of diet on gut bacteria and weight. (Are Fat Genes to Blame for Your Weight?)

The study, published this week in Science Translational Medicine, followed over 2,300 healthy adults for three weeks. The researchers tracked their diet, exercise, blood pressure, and body mass index (BMI), and took urine samples from each of the participants. In analyzing their pee, they found 29 different metabolites-or byproducts of the body's metabolic processes-that correlated strongly with a person's weight, nine being linked to a high BMI. By determining which markers show up in obese people, they said they can look for similar patterns in normal weight people who may be consuming an unhealthy diet but are not yet seeing the effects. (Can You Be Obese and Fit?)

"That means that the bugs in our gut, and the way they interact with the food we ingest, play three to four times more important of a role in obesity risk than our genetic background," said Jeremy Nicholson, M.D., co-author of the study and head of the Imperial College of London's Department of Surgery and Cancer.

So how does your risk for weight gain show up in your bodily waste? When you eat food, microbes in your gut help to digest it. Metabolites are the waste products of those microbes and are excreted in your urine. Over time, your diet changes the microbiome in your gut as the bacteria adjust to digest your normal diet. (Also, could your digestive system be the Secret to Health and Happiness?) This research suggests that by looking at which metabolites and how many are in your urine, they may be able to tell your risk for future weight gain and metabolic syndrome. For example, they found that a metabolite produced after eating red meat is correlated with obesity, while a metabolite produced after eating citrus fruits is linked with weight loss.

"Lots of people ignore what's really going on and are in denial about what they're really eating," says Peter LePort, M.D., medical director of MemorialCare Center for Obesity at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in California. Showing people the evidence of what they're actually eating and the possible effects of their diet could be a great motivational tool in helping those at risk lose weight and stop bad habits before they lead to the extra-and potentially deadly-pounds, he says. "You can forget what you ate or underestimate your food intake in a food journal and be frustrated with why you're gaining weight, but gut bacteria don't lie," he adds. (And we'd recommend these 15 Small Diet Changes for Weight Loss.)

By providing more information about why exactly someone is gaining weight, this could be a huge boon to not only obesity researchers and doctors, but to individuals as well, LePort says. He adds that the best part is the results are individualized to each person's unique metabolism and gut bacteria, rather than general recommendations. "Anything that gives people an idea of what they're doing right and wrong when it comes to diet would be extremely helpful," he says.

Having health recommendations based on our own unique metabolism sounds like a dream. Unfortunately, the test isn't currently available to the public, but the scientists are hoping to have it out soon. And when it is released, it'll be the most beneficial reason to pee in a cup we've ever heard of!


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