Have you ever wondered why a certain diet worked wonders for your best friend, but you didn’t lose any weight? Or why one twin develops Type II diabetes, but the other twin doesn’t? The answer is highly personal—it’s in your DNA and the lifestyle choices you make.
We grow up hearing about how unique each of us is, but we often forget that our uniqueness goes down to the cellular level. It’s the reason why someone like comedian George Burns can live to be 100, even with a notable smoking habit, while other people die of lung cancer in their 40s. Science has made tremendous advances in understanding human DNA, and now we’re able to more easily use genetic research to our advantage, especially when it comes to our diet.
To understand this concept a little better, here are a few definitions to know:
- Genome means the genetic material that you’re born with: your DNA. This cannot be changed—think “written in pen.”
- Epigenome means the network of chemical compounds that interacts with the genome by directing which genetic material to activate or which to leave inactive—the mechanism that “turns on” or “turns off” your DNA. The epigenome is affected by personal health, diet, nutrition, exercise, and other lifestyle choices—think “written in pencil”—thus affecting which genetic material is active.
- Nutrigenomics is a field that combines the study of nutrition and gene expression. Scientists working in this field investigate how nutrients and other bioactive components in food affect important metabolic and physiological processes by “turning on” or “turning off” certain genes.
Turning genes on and off? It may sound like science fiction, but it’s very real. Nutrigenomics has come a long way in a short time and has developed a wealth of information that can be used by anyone concerned about personalizing their healthcare plan.
Dr. Ahmed El-Sohemy, one of the top researchers in the nutrigenomics field, investigates how the foods we eat interact with our genes to affect our health. In an interview with John Berardi, Dr. El-Sohemy gives a few examples of how this concept plays out:
- Compounds found in broccoli can switch on a gene that helps the body detoxify some of the chemicals we’re exposed to every day. This gene is missing in about 20% of the general population who won’t get the detoxification benefits (though they will still get the other benefits of healthy eating).
- In some people, creatine supplementation provides large increases in performance and increases lean mass. In others with different DNA, there is no response at all.
- Studies with caffeinated coffee show that for some individuals, drinking coffee lowers the risk of heart attacks. But in other individuals, the same dose of coffee actually increases the risk of heart attacks.
See how different foods and substances affect each of us differently? That’s why some people may bulk up with creatine and others don’t notice any benefits. And it’s also why your body may have a more difficult time losing weight. The research in nutrigenomics has also found that what food tells your genes affects your metabolism. Mark Hyman describes nutrigenomics like this:
- The new science of nutrigenomics teaches us what specific foods tell your genes. What you eat directly determines the genetic messages your body receives. These messages, in turn, control all the molecules that constitute your metabolism: the molecules that tell your body to burn calories or store them. If you can learn the language of your genes and control the messages and instructions they give your body and your metabolism, you can radically alter how food interacts with your body, lose weight, and optimize your health.
[Ultra-metabolism: the simple plan for automatic weight loss. New York: Atria Books; 2006. p. 24.]
The implications of this research are huge. It determines, for example, why certain medications work for some people, but not for others, or why people need different doses of medication. And while studies often show inconsistencies about how nutrients, supplements, and other bioactives work in the body, everything depends on the DNA of the subjects being studied.
On a personal level, nutrigenomics can help you understand yourself better. Pay close attention to what type of diet, exercise, or supplements work best for you. This, in turn, will give you the best results when working towards better health.