Scientists learned over a decade ago that some small creatures, like earthworms, surprisingly have more genes in their cells than we humans do. While we don't have that many genes, scientists discovered the very complex ways in which we control the modest number we do have in an exciting new field called epigenetics. Epigenetics explains how changes in gene activity can occur without changing our actual DNA. The key to it all? Science points to our lifestyle, which is good news for us since we can control our lifestyle.
One way that we can influence genes without changing their basic structure is through the foods we eat. This form of epigenetic control is called nutrigenomics. For many conditions, it can be said that our genes load the “gun”, but our lifestyle decides whether or not to pull the trigger. The ideal situation would be to inherit great genes that favor health and not disease while also adopting a healthy lifestyle. The encouraging news is that for others who inherit genes that may promote illnesses, like heart disease, adult diabetes and cancer, lifestyle can be the tool used to minimize the chances of getting sick.
To put it differently: Our fork is so powerful it not only transports food to our mouth, but it can also be used as a genetic on and off switch to alter our weight, blood pressure, blood cholesterol, cancer growth, and how we age.
To date, most of the elegant studies on nutrigenomics have been performed with a plant-based, low-fat menu, the so-called Ornish Lifestyle Heart Program. Let’s look at some of these mind-blowing experiments that give hope when we choose an apple over a donut and when we exercise at the gym instead of sitting on the couch.
3 Real-Life Epigenetic Experiments
- A plant-based diet can turn off prostate cancer genes.
Dr. Dean Ornish, a physician at a research institute in the San Francisco area, studied 31 men with low-grade prostate cancer and fed them all a plant-based diet with fewer than 10 percent of calories from fat. The men were encouraged to walk, meditate and meet in group sessions to improve their fitness and lower their stress levels and loneliness. At the end of three short months, 48 genes crucial to suppressing cancer growth were found to be more active, while 453 genes shown to promote cancer growth were less active due to the lifestyle shift. Overall, blood tests for prostate cancer activity generally showed a return towards normalcy and a shrinking of tumors. These epigenetic changes from the lifestyle plan were doing great things for these men without surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. Just a fork, some shoes, and some friends.
- A plant-based diet slows aging.
From the same group studied above, Dr. Ornish worked with Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D. to measure the activity of an enzyme produced by genes called telomerase. Telomerase is believed to help determine the speed of aging. Individuals participating in the Lifestyle Heart Program for five years saw that an age-related decrease in telomerase activity was much less prominent in the plant-based, low-fat group than in the control group and that their telomeres were longer, suggesting a slowing of the aging process. These trends remind us to eat as many servings of fruits and vegetables as we can daily while avoiding processed foods and meats to keep our bodies young.
- A plant-based diet improves inflammation, weight, and vascular health.
A research group in Pennsylvania studied 63 individuals with heart disease who followed the Ornish Lifestyle Heart Program and compared them to a group of 63 people who did not follow any particular program. While the control group experienced no improvement in health, the Ornish group lost weight and their blood pressure fell by about 10 percent.
At 12 weeks, researchers found that 26 genes were exhibiting different activity in the Ornish group favoring health and healing. After a year, 143 genes showed the same trend towards health by increasing the consumption of fruit and vegetable servings. The genes that promoted inflammation and blood vessel injury were significantly less active while the control group showed no improvements as they maintained their standard diet throughout the year.
When Hippocrates wrote 2,400 years ago to “let food be thy medicine,” he had no idea that scientific experiments would one day prove him a visionary at the very genetic control level in our cells. Food is no longer just a source of calories containing protein, carbs and fats. Food is information and can be viewed as a remote control to our genetic material, turning them on and off through a variety of modifications that can favor health or disease.
All of this occurs in the grocery store, produce department, farmers’ markets and gardens and does not require a hospital or doctor. Our fork can be the most powerful surgical instrument there is. When you load your diet with a pile of rainbow colored fruits and vegetables, you are taking a serious step towards improving your health without the use of medications. Take control of your genes and in no time, you’ll be back in your skinny jeans.
So, now that you know the correlation between your food choices and your genetic material as it relates to health or disease, what do you do? I recommend striving for 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. This will require planning and purchasing fresh or frozen produce on a regular basis. Starting the day with a NutriBullet smoothie packed with 3 to 4 servings of fruits and vegetables is the single best method I know of and is the reason one currently sits on my desk in my cardiology office as I type this.