the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.
I find it empowering to think that the food we eat can have an effect on our gene expression.
Hold on! You mean what I eat… can affect my genes?
Yes, indeedy! Quite an eye opener. Certainly caught my attention. In fact, I believe I am the first cookbook author ever to have a section on epigenetics, in my book The Longevity Kitchen.
I first learned about epigenetics while working with Dr. Jeanne Wallace, an authority in integrative cancer nutrition, and Dr. Lise Alschuler, a leading naturopath in the cancer world. These women have been talking about epigenetics as it relates to cancer for years. They’re fluent in the very complex language of genes and snips. These girls know how to get their geek on, and I learned from them.
I quickly understood that for better or for worse, everything in our human environment, from the foods we eat to the air we breathe to the songs we sing (think stress, or the lack thereof) affects our genes, playing a role in how long we live.
And although genes are the colorful fabric of our being, that fabric doesn’t weave itself. Our genes are the raw material waiting, indeed, wanting, to be woven by a host of cellular processes that direct genetic behavior. Those processes determine everything from protein production to cell differentiation -- i.e., gene expression.
Fascinating enough for you?
About a dozen years ago, we completed mapping all the genes in the human genome. Along the way, we learned that almost every process in the human body, including the creation of most disease states, involves the interplay of anywhere from three to more than a dozen genes. Damage to any of those genes can wreak havoc on the entire process. It’s like square dancing, constantly rotating partners, keeping things humming along smoothly... and then slipping on a banana peel—or, more aptly, the wrapper from some sort of sugar-laden junk food. The do-si-do quickly devolves into a do-si-don’t.
As researchers have learned more and more of the genetic, metabolic, and cellular causes of disease, they’ve also figured out which nutrients can turn those processes around.
Take cancer, which is essentially uncontrolled cell growth. Somewhere, the numerous genetic signals that say, “Hey, cells, stop dividing!” have gotten turned off. For a long time, conventional wisdom has held that once those signals were short-circuited and tumor growth started, diet couldn’t do much to impact the process.
Au contraire. Jeanne Wallace notes that when a person transitions from from the standard American diet (SAD), dominated by highly processed foods, toward a whole food diet featuring healthy fats, complex carbs, and veggies (particularly cruciferous vegetables) that critical signaling process seems to kick back in. She says that, when people make such changes, “if we do an analysis looking at hundreds of genes, we can see four hundred to five hundred oncogenes, the genes responsible for causing cancer, being turned off within a short period.”
She continues, “The foods we eat communicate with our genes, and we’re able through our food choices to alter our gene expression. This is surprising for most lay people, who think you’re just stuck with the genetic luck of the draw that you got when your parents gave birth to you. We’ve learned that this is not true. The expression of those inherited genes can be changed.”
To repeat: We’re able through our food choices to alter our gene expression.
WOW! Let’s take a moment to consider how empowering this statement is! And to savor the next step, which is stacking the deck with yum! We’ve got all these delicious herbs and spices and flavorful organic fruits and vegetables to work with, that have the power to turn certain genes on and certain genes off.
So, let’s get to it! Let’s translate the science to the plate, and get into our kitchens, inspired to use the power of yum to turn ON our HEALTHY genes.
And since Fall is very much in the air, a great, veggie-rich, gene-healthy recipe to try out right now would be Bella’s Moroccan-Spiced Sweet Potato Salad, named after my late, great, beloved Portuguese Water dog, bless her!
In summation: we are all unique! At some point in time there will be no such thing as fad diets and groping for the right foods. You’ll be able to be plugged in and get a list of exactly the foods that will be right for you. One person is a sweet potato gal, another broccoli. And meanwhile, this is why variety counts. Why we want to have as much color in our food as we can. And why you should eat your veggies, like your mom said! As many as you can. All those phytochemicals really do have a positive effect on gene expression.