Updated: May 13
What you eat shapes your genes
“Once on the lips, forever on the hips” is a famous saying some of us might have heard of. It emphasizes the fact that it is easier to control what you take into your body than to work on your body later by extreme measures to get rid of the junk that deposits in it.
As the taste only lasts till the tongue, we should learn to have our gustatory (taste) receptors under control so as to have a physically, mentally, socially, spiritually, and intellectually healthy lifestyle.
I know you know all of those savoury meals, where to get them, and some of us even know how best to make them just to satisfy our cravings. Sometimes, we even make statements just to feel less guilty in the and sometimes after the eating process.
How does what I eat shape my genes?
Now the big question is “Do the food we eat affect the expression of our genes?”
Let it interest you that a number of research findings have verified this as being true. The genetic combination of humans is able to undergo a change in expression through a number of lifestyle factors. The expression of the genetics inherited from our parents does not only determine what we look like, but it is also subject to how we live every day.
Since our foods are a major player in how our genes are being expressed, then there is a need for us to give express consideration to what we put into our mouth as food and our diet because it not only affects us but is repeated and transferred to our generations to come.
Now, how do the genes get shaped by our diet?
The human body is made up of roughly 37 trillion cells put together. The cells are the body’s building blocks. The “brain” of the cell is called the nucleus, and the nucleus contains genes in the form of DNA.
For years, it was assumed that the DNA was a product of our heritage, handed down from our parents, a rigid pre-determinant of everything from height to mathematical skills and everything else.
However, the revolutionary new field of epigenetics has led to the discovery that what we do in terms of our physical activities actually changes the way our DNA is used. The choice of our diet, lifestyle and the environment we live in and even our mental health can forever transform the genetic code and alter the level at which these genetic codes are expressed resulting in the production of the desired protein.
It’s rather scary and amazing that the choices we make in life change our DNA and impact our next generation as well.
Epigenetics – a program that runs a body’s metabolism
Epigenetics is the study of potentially heritable changes in gene expression (active versus inactive genes) that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence.
It represents a change in phenotype without a change in genotype. In other words, epigenetic signals can prompt changes in the number of methyl chemical groups attached to a gene. This is what causes the change in gene expression.
Rather than changing the DNA itself, attachment of certain chemical groups can turn a gene on or off and can put one at risk of health complications or benefits. Turning a gene off when it needs to be expressed and turning a gene on when it need not be expressed can cause haphazard effects on the body.
Note that the epigenetic marks do not change the DNA sequence, that is how the DNA is coiled. Therefore the entire genomic information or genotype, inherited from our parents and theirs remains intact or untouched.
What happens is that the epigenetic markers like diet and the environment, for example, transform the local chromatin environment which in turn affects the accessibility of our DNA and regulates a wide range of its processes.
Epigenetic change is a regular and natural occurrence but can also be influenced by several factors including age, disease state, lifestyle, and environment.
A person’s diet is an important factor that has been seen to signal human genes. It dictates whether to express or not and it is highly important to investigate how eating habits modify gene expression in adults and their offspring.
Having an understanding of this gene signalling and diet could help identify nutritional elements that might help prevent or treat diseases.
DIET – a major factor that contributes to an epigenetic modulation
Epigenetic modifications can occur in response to a lot of factors. One of the most important and prominent factors is diet. The detailed mechanisms by which diet affects epigenetics are not fully understood, but some clear examples are well known.
During the winter of 1944–1945, the Netherlands suffered a terrible famine as a result of the German occupation, and the population’s nutritional intake dropped to fewer than 1,000 calories per day.
Women continued to conceive and give birth during these hard times, and these children are now adults in their seventies.
Recent studies have revealed that these individuals who were exposed to calorie restrictions while in their mother’s uterus have a higher rate of chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity than their siblings.
This has led to the revelation that the first few months of pregnancy seem to have had the greatest effect on disease risk.
How can something that happened before you were even born influence your life as much as 60 to 70 years later? The answer appears to lie in the epigenetic adaptations made by the foetus in response to the limited supply of nutrients.
The exact epigenetic alterations are still not clear, but it was discovered that people who were exposed to famine in the uterus have a lower degree of methylation of a gene implicated in insulin metabolism than their unexposed siblings. Although epigenetic changes are reversible, some of them may even persist through generations, affecting the grandchildren of the exposed women.
Importance of an epigenetic diet
Having understood that the foods we eat directly have a potent effect on the expression of our genes over time. Not just for us but it trails the path for our children too.
Hence, it is highly important to give careful observation and deliberate decisions as to what is put in our mouths as food.
There are certain numbers of foods that have been found to alter the epigenetics in humans.
Consumption of dietary agents can alter normal epigenetic states as well as reverse abnormal gene activation or silencing.
Bioactive nutritional components of an epigenetic diet may be incorporated into one’s regular dietary regimen and used therapeutically for medicinal purposes.
Remember, it all starts with what you put into your mouth today and now. Take caution. Eat right. Eat healthily.