Food can mean so many things to us.
Food is culture and tradition,
food is comfort and pleasure and celebration,
food is community and family and memory.
For some, food is guilt or the enemy or a big problem or the cause of pain and suffering.
From my perspective as a clinical nutritionist, one meaning is at the core of my practice: food is medicine. This concept is not new by any means.
Hundreds of years ago Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Underlying this is also the idea that food is information. The food you digest sends messages to every one of the approximately 37 trillion cells in your body to do their job!
Your body is fundamentally wise. It is constantly working to maintain a balance, a finely-regulated and critical state known as homeostasis. Give your body the right information with whole nutrient-dense foods and it will do wonders to keep you healthy and happy. Give your body the wrong information or incomplete information or worse, unrecognizable information with overly-processed foods, artificial ingredients, and toxins – and some biochemical processes in the body can eventually get out of balance. This leads to a host of acute and chronic health conditions.
Food is Information – Epigenetics
The newest and most game-changing findings that have great implications for what to eat are in the field of epigenetics and nutrigenomics.
For years it was believed that our genes are our destiny. I often hear clients say, “My mother had diabetes so I’m headed that way” or “Heart disease runs in my family so I’ll eventually have heart disease as well.”
Our genetic make-up was thought to be static and pre-determined and largely out of our control. The new science of epigenetics has radically altered this view. Epigenetics literally means “around or upon genetics” and refers to the environmental factors that influence gene expression – whether certain genes are switched on or off.
Obviously there are some of our genes that are fixed and determine particular characteristics – eye and hair color, for example, or some specific childhood diseases. But the vast majority of our genes are involved in directing biochemical processes involved in many of the diseases, health conditions and aging processes we see today. And these genes can be changed in how they are expressed.
It turns out that food – what you eat every single day – is one of the primary influences on gene expression and also the one we have the most control over.
The nutrients in food are literally a language that communicates to our DNA to switch our genes on or off through a process called methylation. The nutrients in foods place green lights or stop signs on our DNA that influence our body’s response. Our food “talks” to our genes and we can either give them messages that nourish or messages that damage our DNA.
This is certainly good news for anyone seeking to prevent disease and promote optimal health and for those concerned that “bad” genes might doom them.
Let’s look at the example of excess sugar consumption, which most people know by now (and you most likely do, too, if you are reading this) is linked to diabetes and heart disease, among other things. But a study in the Journal of Experimental Medicine showed that even short-term exposure to high amounts of sugar (too much cake and ice cream – we’ve all been there) led to epigenetic changes that can lead to cardiovascular disease. And these changes lasted at least 6 days after the one-time high sugar intake! This points to the fact that the effect of eating poorly can persist over time. What if three days later you had another dose of sugary foods? Your poor DNA never gets a break to able to repair the damage.
Another study published in the journal Science showed that low-glucose and low-carbohydrate diets could be protective of the genes that suppress toxic oxidative stress in our brains. Think about it: Americans average around 13-14% of calories per day from pure added sugar and current US dietary guidelines recommend that we get 65% of our daily calories from carbohydrates. Given that it has been shown that low carbohydrate diets are protective of the genes that keep the brain healthy, it seems like a recipe for dementia and cognitive decline.
Some diseases and conditions with possible epigenetic origins:
Coronary artery disease
Neurological conditions – Alzheimer’s. Autism, ALS, dementia
The great good news is that we can reverse damaged genes with our food. We can use our forks to influence our DNA!
HOW TO EAT TO GIVE YOUR GENES THE RIGHT MESSAGES
We are all so biochemically unique that really there is no one diet prescription that works for everybody. But there are some general guidelines which can go a long way towards giving your genes the right information.
Eat as close to nature as possible. The further away your food is from its original state – refined flour, processed foods, artificial ingredients – the less good data it will contain. Your body has evolved over thousands of years to understand the messages in real food, not in “fake food” products.
Choose vegetables and fruits in a wide variety of colors. So many of the healthy components of food needed for healthy gene regulation are found in the compounds that also give foods their rich beautiful colors. Plants contain more than 100,000 of these compounds! They aid in giving your genes the messages that can be understood.
Eat whole foods. As noted above, our bodies have evolved to recognize real food. Additionally, food in its whole form is more than the sum of its parts. There is a vital synergistic effect of the different components in food which is disrupted when foods are altered. Think of it as giving your genes complete and clear instructions verses partial or garbled messages.
Choose organic foods when possible. There are studies that show that environmental toxins such as the pesticides and other chemicals used on conventional produce are linked to epigenetic effects. For a good guide in selecting organic fruits and vegetables see: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/
Include lots of these helpful foods everyday! To maximize the health of your DNA and the process of methylation, here are some foods which can support healthy gene expression and slow or potentially reverse damage to your genes:
- Cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy, kale, cauliflower, arugula, turnips, radish, collard greens
- Sulfur-rich foods: Garlic, onions, chives, scallions, avocados, kiwi, pineapple, strawberries, pasture-raised poultry, eggs and grass-fed beef
- Green tea, turmeric and dark red grapes
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