Genetic variant found in people from Greenland makes eating sugar healthy

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Could sugary sweets actually be a healthy part of your diet? Believe it or not, it happens to be a fact for some people living in Greenland who carry a very special genetic variant. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen say up to three percent of Greenlanders are able to process sugar differently, making a bowl of ice cream as healthy as a plate of broccoli!

The team finds that the unique diet among the people living in Greenland for millennia, which features hardly any sugar at all, has led to two copies of a gene mutation that helps them absorb sugar differently than all other humans. This makes them less likely to be overweight, have cholesterol problems, or suffer from obesity-related diseases.

“Adult Greenlanders with the genetic variation have lower BMI, weight, fat percentage, cholesterol levels and are generally significantly healthier. They have less belly fat and might find it easier to get a six pack. It is amazing and surprising that a genetic variation has such a profoundly beneficial effect,” says biology professor Anders Albrechtsen in a university release.

What does this gene variant do?

In a study of 6,551 adult Greenlanders, the team found that two to three percent of the group have what scientists call a sucrase-isomaltase deficiency. This means they don’t absorb ordinary sugar in the bloodstream the way most people do. Instead, sweet treats head straight for the intestine where the body metabolizes them there.

“Here, gut bacteria convert the sugar into a short-chain fatty acid called acetate, which in previous studies has been shown to reduce appetite, increase metabolism and boost the immune system. That is most likely the mechanism happening here,” explains Mette Andersen, an assistant professor at Copenhagen’s Center for Metabolism Research.

What’s so special about the Greenland diet?

Study authors say the most likely reason for the development of this “sweet” mutation is the traditional diet among Greenlanders which goes back thousands of years.

“It is probably due to Greenlanders not having had very much sugar in their diet. For the most part, they have eaten meat and fat from fish, whales, seals and reindeer. A single crowberry may have crept in here and there, but their diet has had minimal sugar content,” Albrechtsen explains.

The researcher adds that this lifestyle also makes the genetic variant more common, since there has never been a biological need to absorb sugar rapidly into the human bloodstream. While this is great for adults, it’s unfortunately a problem when they’re children.

“Younger carriers of the variation experience negative consequences due to their different type of sugar absorption. For them, consuming sugar causes diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating. Our guess is that as they age, their gut bacteria gradually get used to sugar and learn how to convert it into energy,” notes Torben Hansen, a doctor and professor at Copenhagen’s Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research.

The hope now is to turn this discovery into a treatment for people living with cardiovascular disease or those who are obese.

“We can see that the genetic variation provides a better balance of fat in the bloodstream, which results in lower weight and consequently, fewer cardiovascular diseases. If you can develop a drug that inhibits the sucrase-isomaltase gene, then in principle, we might all be able to have equally strong health profiles,” Hansen concludes.

The findings appear in the journal Gastroenterology.

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