Whether you are a vegetable lover or a vegetable hater, there is another—and perhaps the most powerful—reason to eat your veggies: chemicals naturally found in plant-based foods, called phytochemicals, can change your DNA.
This so called epigenetic effect of plant foods, in addition to their established antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefit, helps explain why your mother was right when she said eating your fruits and vegetables, rather than processed foods that modify or lack these natural phytochemicals, is good for you.
You may think of your genetic code, your unique sequence of DNA that is passed down from your parents, as a predetermined lottery of whether you will be thin, smart, or develop diabetes. But more important than your genes in determining your health and how you age is how your genes interact with your dietary and other lifestyle choices. Even if you carry a “bad” gene, you can influence whether you turn that gene on or off.
Inside your cells, you do this through epigenetic changes —small modifications that occur in your DNA based on your diet, lifestyle, and environment. The most common of these include the addition of a methyl group to DNA (called methylation) or to proteins that compact your DNA, called histones. Like the sequence of your DNA, you can pass epigenetic changes from generation to generation. But unlike your genetic code, epigenetic modifications are reversible: they can occur in utero (your mother’s diet can contribute to whether you develop diabetes or obesity) and you can change them day after day throughout your lifetime.
You should view food as more than the protein, carbohydrates, and fats that give you energy and nutrients. Whole foods provide the switch that can epigenetically help you ward off diseases that run in your family.
Your Genes Are What You Eat
Preventing cancer. The role of epigenetics in changing your risk of developing a disease was first discovered and is best understood in cancer prevention. One clue epidemiologists observed was that in Asian countries, where the intake of cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, and Bok choy is much higher than in the United States, the number of cases of prostate cancer is tenfold lower. One of the chemicals behind this cancer fighting property was later discovered to be sulforaphane.
In lab studies, sulforaphane can stop prostate cancer cells from multiplying. It can also support your body’s natural ability to fight cancer by activating your tumor suppressor genes. Sulforaphane isn’t the only phytochemical that can cause epigenetic changes. Others have been discovered that can impact whether a variety of different cancers start or progress in your body.
Reducing inflammation. An imbalance between inflammation and anti-inflammation is a common pathway leading to aging and chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. A variety of plant based foods can prevent, slow, and even reverse epigenetic changes that lead to chronic inflammation.
Preventing heart disease. Epigenetic DNA modifications can influence your risk of developing and progressing with cardiovascular diseases such as atherosclerosis and heart failure. A large number of epidemiological and clinical studies indicate that a diet rich in polyphenols, one of the largest and most widely available groups of phytochemicals capable of causing epigenetic modifications, correlates with reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. So far, however, no clinical trials have been done to test epigenetically active chemicals for their ability to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Reversing the obesity epidemic. Scientists are just beginning to learn how epigenetic changes to your genes relate to your risk of obesity. Early in development, during gestation and lactation, epigenetic changes can program a lifelong imbalance between your energy intake and expenditure. Later in life, this may increase your chance of obesity as well as metabolic syndrome and type II diabetes.
Early epigenetic changes are also believed to affect how your weight responds to certain diets—whether you do better with high protein, low carb for example—and how your appetite hormones regulate your weight and regain of weight following weight loss. The next step is finding the specific chemicals in foods that can epigenetically change your risk for obesity.
An Epigenetic Diet For Healthy Aging
An “epigenetic diet” is eating for the health of your DNA. Most healthful epigenetic foods discovered so far contain polyphenols, bioactive phytochemicals present in fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. Of the nearly 8000 polyphenols, the ones most studied for their potential to prevent and treat disease, in particular cancer, include :
- Catechins/epicatechins found abundantly in green tea, and also in black and oolong teas
- Curcumin from the plant, Curcuma longa, which is the yellow pigment and main component of the spice turmeric
- Resveratrol, naturally found in peanuts, cranberries, and blueberries yet most abundant in grape skin
- Isothiocyanates such as sulforaphane (SFN) available in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale
- Isoflavones (genistein) found in a variety of beans, and in particular, soybeans
- Various dietary factors found in Brazilian nuts, cereals, coffee, cashews, garlic, parsley, rosemary, milk thistle and chicken.
The interaction between your genes and nutrients, called nutrigenomics, is a two way street: not only can what you eat “talk” to your DNA but your genes can program your food preferences and how your body responds to different foods.
As the field of nutrigenomics progresses, your doctor may be able to tell you which foods are best for you and what “dose” of each phytonutrient you need based on your individual ability to absorb and metabolize bioactive nutrients. Many gene-nutrient effects for a wide range of diseases will need to be uncovered, however, until you can receive personalized health and nutritional recommendations based on mapping your genes and epigenes.
I think food, as thy epigenetic medicine, holds the potential to manage your health more than any pharmaceutical. I would encourage you to take advantage of Nature’s natural medicine and, rather than follow the latest diet trend, eat for the health of your DNA.