| Dr. Charlie Ware

Epigenetics In Diet And Nutrition

The western diet comprises fast foods, french fries, and quite a substantial amount of processed food options. These foods are making the lives of the people more convenient, that is for sure. No longer is there a need for peeling and chopping up vegetables, or even having to cook dinner at all. A quick visit to a local McDonalds and dinner is served.

While convenient, the population needs to realize the impact that these habits have on their health. Over just the last decade, the prevalence of obesity in Europe has risen from under 10% to an estimated 40% [1].

The prevalence of chronic diseases like coronary heart disease, osteoarthritis, diabetes, and even cancers are also rising. Obesity is contributing to these diseases, along with the population’s inability to realize how certain foods affect them. 

 

Food, Nutrition, And The Human Body

The population has a limited understanding of how foods affect them. Campaigns have been published to help educate people about the adverse effects of constantly relying on fast foods and fried foods, processed foods, and refined products. Scientific studies have confirmed that the consumption of trans fats leads to an increased incidence of heart disease and implications with the cardiovascular system [2].

The consumption of fast foods and processed foods often also add what is often referred to as “empty calories” to a person’s diet.  

What many do not realize is that unhealthy foods and an inadequate meal plan also affects the DNA of the human body – or, more specifically, gene expressions.

Scientists at the University of California Los Angeles [3] explain that we should no longer only focus on the fact that food is converted into energy and that cells in the body require this energy, along with nutrients, to function properly. We should also focus on the fact that food has a deeper effect on the body.

When we eat an unbalanced meal plan, and adequate nutrition is not provided by our foods, along with the fact that unhealthy substances are found in what we eat, then certain chemical reactions occur, causing some genes to switch off and others to be turned on. Some of these genes may play crucial roles in the human body.

In one scientific paper [4], researchers explain that we should look at food as the "environment" and then consider the effects of this environment on epigenetics – to be more specific, the nutrients found in food form an environment that essentially interacts with gene expressions within the human body. This means that nutrients can alter the way that genes are read by cells throughout the body. The end result could be alterations, sometimes even disturbances, in metabolic processes. The cellular function may be altered as well, which can wreak havoc on the body and ultimately lead to healthy structures becoming damaged.

In a study [5] led by Rosetta Inpharmatics in Seattle, USA, scientists explain that it has long been known in epigenetics that age and gender tend to have a significant impact on gene expressions and on human DNA in general. Furthermore, the time of day at which DNA strands are analyzed, and gene expressions are considered in a patient also tend to play a role. This study looked at how food intake, in general, could alter gene expression. The researchers found that a fasted state and a fed state both led to alterations in overall gene expressions, leading to an important discovery in the study of epigenetics.

At this point, it should be noted that scientists have also discovered that genes may play a role in the development of obesity. According to the National Institutes of Health5, a genetic component has been discovered – where genes cause some people to gain weight faster than others. Study subjects fed a diet that is similar to the Western Diet we know today caused an increase in weight that varied from 0% up to 600% compared to a control group – showing that diet may not be the only factor contributing to weight changes, but also the way that genes affect the way that the body metabolizes food, as well as how fat is distributed and stored.

 

How This All Fits Into A Healthier Body Through The Right Nutrition

The good news here is that science has come to a point where researchers are now able to determine how certain foods and nutrients can impact epigenetics and general gene expressions within the human body. This has led to the development of many nutritional programs and diets that focus on reducing the intake of foods that may alter gene expressions in a negative way, and including those foods that contain the right nutrients to benefit human epigenetics.

This leads to the conclusion that the way to a healthier life should not only lie in understanding how a balanced diet works on a cellular level within the human body, but also understand the role of diet and nutrition in epigenetics, the body’s DNA structure, and the expression of genes.

To provide a clearer understanding, we should focus on a study that was conducted by scientists at the University of Utah [6]. The idea behind this particular study was to identify genes that were altered by dietary intake, and more particularly, how specific gene expressions changed with the consumption of specific food types. The study also wanted to see how diet could be related to the disease on a genetic and DNA level.

The following discoveries were made in terms of genes and specific food and nutrient intakes:

  • 68 Dysregulated genes were associated with meat-related foods
  • 65 Dysregulated genes were associated with non meat-related foods
  • Three dysregulated genes were associated with the intake of calcium
  • Four dysregulated genes were associated with folate

The most important discoveries that the researchers were able to make in this study was the following:

  • Expression of genes that were associated with the consumption of meat-related products is also linked to cancer, tumor morphology, organismal injury, organismal abnormalities, cellular death, cellular function, cellular maintenance, cellular movement, and the survival of cells in the human body. 
  • Expression of the genes that were associated with non meat-related food consumption was linked to hematological system development, hematological system function, the function and development of the nervous systems, as well as tissue morphology. Furthermore, these gene expressions also hold links to organismal injuries, organismal abnormalities, and disorders that affect connective tissues in the body.

According to a study [7] in the Journal of Advances in Nutrition, there are two ways that the nutrients found in food can alter gene expressions. The nutrients can either have a direct influence on the enzymes that cause gene expression to be altered. Alternatively, the nutrient may have an action on the availability of the specific substrates that are required for the enzymes to perform their particular actions.

It is important to understand that nutrients are important now not only for maintaining normal cellular function, but also to ensure gene expressions are altered in more positive ways. In one study [8], scientists exposed pregnant mice to BPA compounds, also known as Bisphenol A. One mice were fed a standard diet, but the other mice had added nutrients in their diet. These nutrients included vitamin B12, folic acid, choline, and betaine.

The result was healthier newborn mice from the mother fed the diet that was supplemented with additional nutrients. This provided further evidence that the right nutrients play a role even before birth.

In human subjects, further research may still be required, but ensuring adequate intake of essential nutrients through diet is crucial. Adults, pregnant women, children, and the elderly all require an adequate supply of minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and healthy fats. When processed and refined foods are consumed instead, we see adverse reactions on the DNA and in epigenetics, ultimately causing problems with gene expressions in the body.

Additionally, it is also important to consider the importance of obtaining the majority, or all if possible, of these nutrients from whole-food and natural sources. By ensuring an adequate intake of fruits and vegetables, as well as fish and some other foods, nutrition can be supplied to cells, genetic expressions can be affected in the right way, and the risk of disease can truly be reduced at a DNA level – not just at a cellular level.

There is another crucial discovery that was recently made by scientists at the University of Science and Technology [9]. Researchers study the effects of different diets on different people. The researchers took into account that different people may also respond in their own ways to certain foods.

Researchers found that a diet that is high in carbohydrates leads to some genes in the body, especially those that are involved in inflammatory triggers, started to work overtime. These individuals were fed a diet that consisted of 65% carbohydrates. The remainder of their diets consisted of fats and proteins. Additionally, certain genes that have been associated with dementia, cancer, diabetes, and heart diseases were also found to overwork when carbohydrates were too much in the diet.

Another important discovery is that low-carb diets seem to have a more positive effect but still does not offer the ideal "protective" effect that is expected from a "healthy" diet.

The conclusion of this particular study is that a diet should ideally be balanced in terms of macronutrients. They found that the most ideal distribution would be to divide macronutrients equally – this means one third would be proteins, one-third fats, and the other third would be carbohydrates. By limiting carbohydrates, genes that are involved in the above-mentioned diseases and also inflammation would not become overstimulated.

The next step is for further research to be conducted on specific food sources. Then to see how the nutrients in these food sources would affect the epigenetics of the human body. Understanding the role of adequate nutrition while avoiding overnutrition also becomes important – as enough nutrients can be beneficial, but when the body is given too much, then adverse events may occur.

 

Conclusion

With a rising trend of chronic disease and obesity, people need to realize the importance of understanding the impact that food has on their bodies. Not only do we need to consider the impact of nutrition on cellular and tissue function, but we also have to consider the effects that food has on gene expressions. Epigenetics plays an important role in the well-being of the human body – and needs to be taken into consideration when a nutritional meal plan is developed to ensure genes can be affected in a positive manner.

 

 

 

References:

  1. M. Agha, R. Agha. The rising prevalence of obesity: part A: impact on public health. International Journal of Surgery. Oncology. 22 Jun 2017.
  2. D. Moaffarian, A. Aro, W.C. Willett. Health effects of trans-fatty acids: experimental and observational evidence. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. May 2009.
  3. H. Landecker. Food as exposure: Nutritional epigenetics and the new metabolism. Journal of Biosocieties. 7 Mar 2011.
  4. A.S. Leonardson, J. Zhu, Y. Chen, K. Wang, J.R. Lamb, M. Reitman, V. Emilsson, E.E. Schadt. The effect of food intake on gene expression in human peripheral blood. Oxford Journals: Human Molecular Genetics. 16 Oct 2009.
  5. Genes, Junk Food, and Weight. National Institutes of Health. 28 Jan 2013.
  6. A.J. Pellatt, M.L. Slattery, L.E. Mullany, R.K. Wolff, D.F. Pellatt. Dietary intake alters gene expression in colon tissue: possible underlying mechanisms for the influence of diet on disease. Journal of Pharmacogenetics and Genomics. 9 Mar 2016.
  7. S.W. Choi, S. Friso. Epigenetics: A New Bridge between Nutrition and Health. Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal. 21 Oct 2010.
  8. Nutrition & the Epigenome. Genetic Science Learning Center.
  9. Feed your genes. Norwegian University of Science and Technology. 19 Sep 2011.

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