Epigenetics: Your Diet Can Change Your DNA

Epigenetics: Your Diet Can Change Your DNA

You are what you eat, and this time, it’s genetic. Scientists have found a link between diet and lifestyle, and genetic expression in future generations.

Don’t worry. That Double Double you just inhaled isn’t going to hurt your grandchildren (unless that’s all you eat on a regular basis). It also won’t change your DNA itself. Instead, it changes whether a gene is expressed, like turning a light switch on or off.

Epigenetics studies how environmental and biological signals can affect gene expression. As scientists learn more about what causes changes in gene expression, they can further understand the relationship between diet, lifestyle, nutrition and diseases like coronary artery disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and obesity.

Here’s how your diet could change your genetic expression.

The link between nutrition, pregnancy and genetic expression

If you’ve ever been pregnant or around pregnant people, you probably know that there’s an extreme emphasis on proper nutrition. Scientists believe that nutrition plays a critical role in transgenerational health—specifically, between mother and child, although the father’s gene expressions play a role as well. Because epigenetics impact cell differentiation, development and function, it can help us understand how nutrition during pregnancy can have far-reaching effects. In other words, what your grandma ate when she was pregnant with your parent might be responsible for your own gene expression.

Scientific American uses the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944 to illustrate the concept. During that winter, people in the western Netherlands suffered a famine. They were forced to live on 400 to 800 calories per day—even pregnant women. The babies who were conceived, carried and/or delivered during this famine had higher rates of “obesity, altered lipid profiles and cardiovascular disease” in their adulthood. Similarly, 2015 research revealed that an infant’s gut microbiota has an influence on their body fat, later in life.

NiPPeR, the Nutritional Intervention Preconception and During Pregnancy to Maintain Healthy Glucose Metabolism and Offspring Health, was a clinical trial to study this concept. Scientists studied whether a nutritional drink, consumed before conception and during pregnancy, could ward off metabolic disorders like gestational diabetes or type 2 diabetes for both mother and fetus. The idea is that adjusting their nutrition before conception and during pregnancy could stop or slow down the onset of metabolic conditions. A similar concept has been proven in mice: “genetically identical mice that consumed a high-fat diet were more likely to produce obese offspring with impaired glucose tolerance, an early sign of type 2 diabetes.”

Undernourishment may also contribute to bearing offspring with pancreatic issues and glucose intolerance, among other diseases. Furthermore, infections during pregnancy have been linked to the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders in mice offspring. Emotional traumas can be passed down through generations, too: the descendants of Holocaust survivors have an increased likelihood of stress disorders.

You are what you eat

To be clear, researchers are still testing these hypotheses—and most people in developed nations have access to adequate nutrition. You are unlikely to pass on a genetic inheritance like the mothers and children in the Dutch Hunger Winter.

On the other hand, the research is promising. It may be able to help scientists identify additional risk factors in developing certain conditions and diseases. Every little bit helps.

So, what does that mean for you? The idea that your nutritional choices now could impact your great-grandchildren’s health is a bit daunting. Will the Great Halloween Candy Binge of 2022 give your grandchildren diabetes? Probably not—but if it’s a regular occurrence, it could contribute.

The key point to take away is that your nutrition can and probably will have an impact on your own and your offspring’s gene expression. That doesn’t mean that you have to eat perfectly all the time. Food should be enjoyed, including reasonable indulgences. It does mean that you should pay more attention to nutritional content.

Ideally, we’re all eating a healthy diet full of fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and more. If you’re getting fresh produce, lean protein and healthy fats, you’re more likely to pass on positive epigenetic traits—and your own overall health will improve.

Ultimately, epigenetic nutrition is just one piece of the puzzle. Environmental and other biological factors can also have a big impact on genetic inheritance. But since we can often control what we eat, this is one easy way to set your descendants up for a healthier life.

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