Our discussions of diets and life styles in our recent past, and our distant past, begs the question of which epoch has the most influence.
In most of the literature I've read it seems a foregone conclusion that the ancient past has had, and still has, the most influence on our bodies today simply because there has been so much time to work out all those genetic adaptations. That presupposed that our genetics are a canned program that plays itself out exactly without variation, except for mutations. Maybe that's true. I suspect it isn't. The new and still developing science of epi-genetics calls some of that conclusion into question. Our genes, it seems, are actually plastic (which means malleable, adjustable, changeable) in their expression. It is called by epigeneticists "developmental plasticity".
Maybe our genes don't work that way.
Consider, if you will, two grandmothers. One was born 85 years ago. The other one was born 1.8 million years ago. Which one has the most profound influence on, specifically for the purpose of this article, our ability to digest food and absorb nutrients from that food.
Believers in the popular caveman diet ( the paleo diet) would have us believe that our ancient mother, the one from whom our genetics sprang and adapted over the eons of time is the predominant contributor to our present state of being. Our 85 year old grandmother is just a link in the chain that is too recent to have had any effect. In a species like ours where we reproduce slowly (not like bacteria that reproduces in minutes or hours) successful mutations that become successful adaptations take thousands, hundreds of thousands of years to become the new you. The 85 years since your grandmother was born is so short a time that it is exceedingly unlikely that anything new has occurred. Times may have changed, but our adaptation to those changes are effectively zero.
"Not so fast" some epigenetic studies are saying.
No, actually they are saying "Way way faster than that." It is becoming apparent from recent studies northwestern.edu that significant changes in our bodies ability to digest food and absorb nutrients, among other things, can happen IN A SINGLE GENERATION. That doesn't make sense, though. How can our genetics re-write itself so fast? Well, it doesn't. It just changes the volume, the level at which the genes express themselves. That is a whole different thing. The genes don't change at all. What changes is their programming, the amplitude of their expression.
Genes can remember your mother and your grandmother and program you accordingly.
So where is the master switch, the volume control on these variable genes? Who turns up the volume, or turns down the volume? I'm not sure science has an answer for that yet, but there are studies that show the effect.
Let's use a little fiction to take a look at 7 generations of some unbelievably unlucky young women to
demonstrate how it all might work.
Note: The pictures represent the style of the period. They are real people but they have nothing to do with this story.
Genetic memory passed through recent generations. 1846 - 1866
Catherine was born in 1846 to a rich plantation owner in the Southern United States. By 1866 she's come of age, taken a husband, and is with child. Unfortunately that was the middle of the US Civil War. The Southern armies commandeered their plantation and then the Northern armies blew it up and burned it down. Poor Catherine, now fatherless and a war widow is living off the land, begging for sustenance, but she's a survivor. What's happening inside though, to her little girl about to be born? The stress hormones and the hypoglycemia have sent a signal to the unborn child who automatically turns down the volume on the glucose being absorbed by her growing muscles. This preserves more for her developing brain and reduces the stress on mother, avoiding a miscarriage.
Elizabeth is born in 1866. Times are still tough but her genes remember the stress and have adapted. She grows slower than other kids who are well off. She enters puberty later than most as well. She is that skinny stick of a girl who doesn't even have boobs to speak of until almost 20 years old. But she does finally get her a husband and in 1893 is with child. Unfortunately in 1893 the Reading Railroad failed, Europeans withdrew investments, and the stock market and the banks collapsed. People were out of work and times were tough. Dorothy was born anyway, with her genetic expression effectively dialed down to properly adapt to the tough times.
Dorothy was a little developmentally delayed but she was an aggressive youngster. She got her a boyfriend and a baby at the tender age of 14. That wasn't too unusual in 1907 to start a family that young. 1907 was a difficult time economically with a pronounced period of deflation. Things were cheap, but jobs were hard to find. Once again the genes were stuck in low gear, adapted and adapting to times of stress and uncertainty.
Helen is a cutie. A lovely young woman all dressed up in those radical costumes the girls wore during the "roaring 20's". By 1930 she had quit the party scene and settled down to start a family. 1930?!? That's smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression. Bread lines and Hooverville shanty towns all around. The genetics came to the rescue once again, matching nutritional demand to available calories so that Kathleen got born into this crazy world.
Kathleen grew up in bizarre times. The world was at war again as the Germans fought against the
Allied forces all over Europe and North Africa. The Japanese were marauding all over the Pacific. Then there was the Korean
conflict and after that a economic recession that lasted from 1953 to 1954. That's just about the time that Kathleen gave
birth to Michelle. Uncertainty and stress ruled the day. By now you know how the story goes.
Michelle was born in 1953. Times were pretty good after the big wars were over. Michelle had some problems with her weight though. Her metabolism is slow for some reason and everything she eats turns to fat. The doctor was worried about diabetes when she was pregnant. Diabetes and obesity seem to run in the family. With the doctors help she managed to make it through a pregnancy in 2001, right in the middle of the dot com financial debacle. These were stressful times, as many high-tech jobs were lost.
Now we are down to you. Your name is Madison and you're a 14 year old girl with a weight problem (just pretend).
You were slow to develop other than the baby fat and entered puberty a bit late compared to the other girls.
After multiple generations of stressful pregnancies your genetics have the nutritional volume turned all the way down.
Your body is set up for starvation mode, every ounce of food that can possible be stored as fat is indeed stored as fat.
You're smart though and you're reading articles and blogs about ways to reset those genes to some appropriate settings
that are more realistic. Is that possible? I'm not sure but I intend to find out.
Can we turn the genetic volume controls and reprogram our genetic expression?
My purpose in this blog is to research our human diet and find out what is healthy, and available, and affordable.
If part of our dietary deficiency or disease is a function of a maladapted genetic expression,
and if we can actually dial that expression up or down as necessary, then that is a phenomenally
good thing to know how to do. If possible, I want to learn how to do that.
The science of epigenetics is all about changes in the expression of genes that does not require an actual change
in the DNA itself. In other words the DNA stays the same, just like it always was, but the job that DNA performs is
different, is variable.
In the literature I have seen from the scientific community the majority of the research is to try to understand
the process of genetic expression during the developmental phase of an organism. For example how does a single fertilized
cell turn into the trillions of highly specific differentiated cells in an adult organism? How does one cell turn into
brain cells, and bone cells, and make an eye or a nose? How does it know how to make tears and saliva? These are all
areas of research to see exactly how that process plays itself out.
There is also some research using enzymes and other chemicals to actually enhance or suppress the expression of certain genes.
This is important research in that it could cure many diseases. If a gene is on too strong, or is on when it should be off,
or off when it should be on, it could cause cancer, or mental retardation, or any one of millions of possible maladies.
If we could reach in there and fiddle with that gene so that it returns to it's normal function, then that would be a
wonderful thing. A little gene therapy and voilà, a serious disorder disappears.
Does genetic expression respond to our thoughts about it?
Things such as the placebo effect shows that our thoughts can have a dramatic effect on our health. People given a
sugar pill miraculously are healed of a disorder simply because of their belief. Our thoughts really do have an effect.
Can our thoughts also have an effect on the expressions of our genes. A popular scientist, Dr Bruce Lipton, thinks so.
Dr Lipton believes that by changing your thoughts about your health that you can change your health, maybe even cure
your cancer or other serious disorder. I've looked at his literature and it is very interesting. I'm not prepared right
now to go down that road though.
Dr Lipton's biology of belief may be just the thing for some people, but it won't work for everybody for one simple reason
the even he acknowledges. These miraculous healings such as the placebo effect are not caused by thoughts in our conscious
awareness; thoughts that we choose to have. They are caused by thoughts we are not even aware of in our sub-conscious.
So to make it work the conscious thoughts have to over-ride and reprogram the sub-conscious.
That's a problem because the sub-conscious is about 1,000,000 times faster and smarter than our conscious mind,
so reprogramming it isn't that easy a thing to do. I would rather find solutions that are simple and reliable and work
without having to get all Zen about it.
What is healthy and available and affordable?
Before I wander to far off into the la la land of science, or pseudo science, I want to get back to the purpose of this blog
which is to find a healthy diet where you can loose the excess weight and have all the nutrients necessary to be healthy
and disease free. This examination of epigenetics has a dual purpose.
One is to show that the hypothesis of the caveman diets (the paleo diet, etc) is not the whole story. Our genetics are not
hard wired for tens of thousands of years and there is nothing we can do about it. This is important in that it
demonstrates our own hypothesis that we do not need to return to the palaeolithic to have a healthy diet.
Secondly I want to find every tool in our arsenal of knowledge to create an available and maintainable diet that is not
only healthy but is affordable to the average Joe, even if he is unemployed and on food stamps. Eating expensive organic
foods, even when those are available, is just too expensive. I don't want to live in a world where the rich can be happy
and healthy and the rest of us just have to waddle along in our fat little sick bodies.
So what does epigenetics show us about the diet we should eat?
That, I don't know yet. But my research is ongoing and I hope soon to have the answer. Stay tuned.
Hello Gary, I am sure your knowledge of genes far surpasses that of mine, as you have demonstrated such in your fine article. But I disagree with you on the Paleo Diet program for several reasons.
1. I am living proof that it works, been using the plan for almost a year now.
2. I believe if you cannot identify the food you are eating in its raw state you should never eat it.
3. We may be genetically designed by time but all of the junk we call food these days is more of the problem than genetic hereditary is.
I would love to discuss this with you as I find it a very interesting topic and a point of view I had not considered before. San
Response from Gary
July 8, 2015, 7:35 am 
I think the paleo diet and several of it's spinoffs are a wonderful diet. Good for weight loss, diabetes, cancer, and all the rest. My problem with exclusionary diets like paleo is that out of the 7 billion people on this planet it simply isn't available to about 6 billion of those people.
That is for two reasons. One is that the recommended foods are not available across the whole planet. Two, and most important, it simply isn't affordable.
I did an analysis in another blog the Atkins diet where I calculated the cost of the equivalent calories from a potato and the cheapest hamburger I could find. The meat was SIX TIMES more expensive for the same calories. If you use the recommended meat without the hormones and with adequate omega-3 (grass fed, grass finished) it is TWENTY SIX TIMES more expensive.
In most of the world and many areas in the USA the staple is either wheat, rice, millet, or potato. For those just barely making it financially (or barely not) the paleo diet is not an option. If in my research I can discover a way to mitigate the anti-nutrient effects of grains and mitigate the glycemic spike of potatoes then a healthy diet that anyone can afford would become a reality. That is my goal.
I've been wealthy and ate the best money could buy. I've been poor when there was just me and a bag of potatoes. I want a diet that works for both.
Thanks for your comment.
Comment from Mark
July 8, 2015, 6:33 am 
Hi Gary -What a great article Do Our Genes Determine What we can Eat Is? I found it very interesting indeed. Everyone thinks people are overweight because they eat too much and exercise too little, but your theory of gene programming is a good insight. In this world of political correctness overweight people are still much maligned. Your post is truly (pardon the pun) "food for thought"
Response from Gary
July 8, 2015, 7:49 am 
Nutrition is one of those subjects where the deeper you look the deeper it gets. Those simplistic ideas such as "just don't eat so much" don't really work. There is always more to the story and what works for one person may not, usually doesn't, work for another.
Thanks for the comment.
Comment from Jurgen
July 8, 2015, 7:16 am 
Hey Gary, nice article you got there. I really liked the story of those 7 unlucky women :) About our diets. It's not easy to see the path to a healthy diet these days. We are surrounded with so much advertisement and even pressure from friends and family that we are blind to the things we actually eat.
Response from Gary
July 8, 2015, 8:00 am 
Agriculture is now just one more industry where the only concern is profit. The advertising plays right into that theme. Kids especially pick up on the advertising and want to eat all the latest junk. It's sad what we have done to the emerging generations of humans.
Comment from Guest
July 16, 2015, 12:00 am 
My first time to read about genetics and what they play in our body weight self-management, or metabolism. It was a long read, but worth the time.
You got me interested, so I bookmarked this page, really.
And I do agree when you said we may have the perfect diet plan, and yet we don't get all the nutrients that we need. Thus, the need for supplements.
But then again, supplements don't replace the healthy diet plan - that is just the basic.
I should say that that was a long history, and now, it is on us. Does epigenetics show us about the diet we should eat?
I am equally keen to find out. I'd be waiting!
Response from Gary
July 17, 2015, 4:49 am 
Yes. We need to start with a healthy diet and supplement what may be missing. No modern diet is going to have all the nutrients we need because our food supply simply does not contain all those nutrients any more.
Epigenetics doesn't show us what to eat. What it does show us is that we have adapted much faster, and can adapt much faster that the paleolithic model indicates. So our bodies are much better adapted to the diet of our 19th century ancestors that one would believe based on current genetic theory.
Comment from Heather
July 22, 2015, 3:36 am 
Your article, Do Our Genes Determine What We Eat, is richly informative and in depth.
As a former Holistic Nutritional Consultant, I am a firm believer in eating a diet that the wisdom of the body is asking for. Easier said than done, especially if the body has been abused with toxic eating habits, in which case a gentle detoxification would be required to bring the body's wisdom back into balance.
Eating is a very simple and uncomplicated adventure if we could all just learn to relax and unwind a bit in the process and take a.moment or two to really tune into what the body is asking for. Mostly it wants to be nourished deeply and lovingly, and not only with food. The body also requires the kind of nourishment that comes from having a strong sense of inner joy and contentment. More joy and much less negativity.
I have always believed that the ultimate diet is the one our body chooses moment by moment if we would only take the time to listen to its profound wisdom.
Thank you again for your observations and thoughts on this engaging topic.