Combatting Obesity with ‘Methyl Donor’ Micronutrients

By Adrian Taylor

8 November 2018

Spinach and egg salad in a bowl

Dietary interventions are an important tool in the fight against obesity. Current approaches focus on controlling the intake of energy rich nutrients such as lipids and carbohydrates, but researchers in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences have found that the micronutrients choline and betaine can also have an important role to play.

Choline and betaine are known as ‘methyl donors’ because they provide methyl groups (molecules that contains one carbon atom surrounded by three hydrogen atoms) which are critical in regulating gene expression and neurological development. Recently, Prof. Marica Bakovic and her research group found that dietary interventions with choline and betaine can reduce liver disease and obesity by reducing the amount of energy stored as fat throughout the body.

“The nutrients that we focus on are often deficient in Western diets, and they get overlooked in their potential to lessen the impact of metabolic diseases,” says Bakovic.

Choline and betaine are abundant in foods such as eggs and spinach. Insufficient consumption of these two nutrients has been correlated with increased weight gain and obesity as well as associated chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes. This interesting link led Bakovic and her group to study how choline and betaine reduce fat accumulation throughout the body.

The researchers fed mice water supplemented with the two nutrients, and then examined their metabolic impact by analyzing blood, liver and fat tissue samples. In addition, they assessed the effects of choline and betaine on the production of molecules involved in a mouse’s metabolic processes. This analysis allowed Bakovic’s group to determine how the biochemical breakdown of choline and betaine decreased fat content in the body. In the end, mice supplemented with choline or betaine ended up with lower amounts of energy stored as fat due to the increased metabolic demand (i.e., energy) required to break down the two nutrients.

Bakovic’s research offers valuable insight about the role of the diet in mitigating the complications which result from obesity, and highlights the importance of a nutritionally balanced diet, even if some of these nutrients are only required in minute quantities.


Read the full study in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.

Read about other CBS Research Highlights.