Change your diet, change your genes
You’ve heard the old saying, “You are what you eat.” Sounds hokey but it’s truer than we believe. According to recent studies, diet choices can actually change the way your genes behave. Now we’re not talking about turning your brown eyes blue or going from mousy brown to a fiery head. We’re talking about using diet to influence how your genes respond to certain illnesses.
It all comes down to one thing, epigenetics. In layman’s speak, epigenetics is a combination of chemical compounds and proteins that attach onto your genes and change how they function. For example, studies involving genetically identical mice found an epigenetic “switch” that turns obesity on and off.
Is Poor Health Your Parents’ Fault?
It’s no secret that an expectant mom’s diet is essential for giving birth to a healthy baby. A mom’s diet during pregnancy strongly influences her child’s preferences for veggies or sweets. Likewise, dads are also responsible for baby health. A Canadian study (involving lab mice) showed that fathers with low folate levels sired offspring with almost 30 percent greater risk of birth defects.
Studies also show that eating choices of both parents are “stamped” onto genes and can be passed through future generations. Obese fathers can pass on a gene not only to their children, but grandchildren! This gene increases the risk of the offspring becoming obese, or worse yet – developing diabetes, even if the kids themselves practice healthy lifestyle habits.
Your Health All Starts In the Gut
It may seem like science fiction, but a great deal of our health begins in the gut – about 70- 80 percent of the immune system is located in the intestines. Most of the antibodies your body makes to fight off illnesses depend on healthy gut flora to keep the immune system strong. After all, the average person has about 100 trillion bacteria, which outnumbers other cells 10-to-one. Poor intestinal health has been scientifically tied to heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, bone health, arthritis, and even osteoporosis. It’s simple: the better your diet, the better your chance of staying healthy.
The two main enemies of healthy gut bacteria are low dietary fiber and alcohol.
In one study, 60 percent of the lab mice fed a low-fiber diet not only had poor intestinal health, but passed poor gut health on to their baby mice. The worst part: even when fed high fiber meals later, these mice never regained good gut bacteria and the problem worsened with each generation.
Excessive alcohol consumption (in addition to destroying liver cells) also turns off specific genes responsible for making naturally protective peptides. In a laboratory study, mice missing these specific genes went on to develop more sever liver disease than normal mice.
But get this. Maintaining healthy gut flora can discourage the effects of alcohol overindulgence, i.e. liver diseases. Studies show that taking probiotics are effective in treating Alcoholic Liver Disease (ALD).
The Takeaway: 5 ways to focus your diet for optimal epigenetics
1. Gut Health
The best and fastest way to achieve optimal overall health is by raising the good bacteria in your gut. A diet rich in fermented foods is what the body needs for gut health.
- Fermented Dairy: Look for products like Kefir (made from fermented, grass-fed organic milk) and Lassi, a traditional Indian yogurt drink usually consumed before dinner.
- Fermented Vegetables: Eat various forms of fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi.
- Quality Probiotics: Another way to optimize good bacteria in the gut is by taking high-quality probiotics. Choose the best probiotic that gives you the most bang for your buck – a brand with at least 10 million live strains can survive stomach acid and populate the gut with good bacteria.
2. Foods high in fiber
In addition to fermented food, help your gut bacteria out with foods high in fiber, like apples, whole wheat pasta, lentils, broccoli, almonds, and even popcorn! More fiber rich foods here.
3. Stay away from high sugar and processed foods.
Bad bacteria feeds on sugar, and this naturally encourages a proliferation of even more bad gut bacteria. Processed foods are equally as bad because of the low nutritional content (unless you count salt, sugar, rancid fats, and preservatives as food groups).
Nutrients found in foods like broccoli, onions, and garlic can radically enhance your body’s ability to fight tumors by activating tumor-fighting genes. In a study involving mice fed a high fat diet, berries such as lingonberries and bilberries helped prevent liver cancer and obesity (by switching off the genes that encourage cancer cell growth).
5. Folate rich foods
Remember, folate rich foods are important, especially when thinking of starting (or expanding) a family: make sure to eat more foods like broccoli, lentils, oranges, eggs, asparagus, spinach, etc. More folate rich foods here.
We’ve given you a lot to chew on (no pun intended), but the truth is: you have the power to influence your health and that of future generations. Putting a little thought into your diet can go a long way, especially with the wealth of new information and research out there.
So what will it be? A veggie stir fry or a fast food burger. A piece of fruit or a candy bar? The choice, of course, is yours.
title image by Flickr user cc.photoshare