Nutrigenomics | food for thought

Nutrigenomics, the study of how food interacts with our genes. Photo courtesy of nutritionsociety.org

“Positive health requires knowledge of man’s primary constitution and of the
powers of various foods, both those natural to them and those resulting from human skill.”
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, 480 BC

We all know that poor diet and exercises affects our physical and mental wellbeing. Now, through nutrigenomics – the study of foods and gene interaction – we are discovering why our genes can have a profound effect on our overall health.

Ever wondered why two people eating exactly the same diet have different body shapes and health outcomes? The answer lies in nutrigenomics – the scientific study of how different foods interact with our genes, especially in regards to the prevention and treatment of disease.

Nutrigenomics: a two-pronged approach

Sometimes referred to as nutrigenetics, the first line of nutrigenomics research helps us understand why some people respond differently to the exact same nutrients as others, for example a high-fat diet. Some individuals can consume a diet high in saturated fat without it leading to high levels of cholesterol. While others consume much lower levels of fat but have critically high levels of cholesterol.

Another example is caffeinated coffee. Drinking caffeinated coffee lowers the risk of heart attacks in some people while increasing it in others.

The second line of research into nutrigenomics investigates how nutrients and bioactive compounds in food can turn certain genes on or off. For example, compounds in broccoli turn on a gene that helps detox the body of some harmful chemicals – a very positive outcome for 80% of us. Unfortunately, this gene is missing in approximately 20% of the population.

Genes and food

The nutrients we consume through food or supplements can cause genes in one person to respond differently to another. Our genetic profile decides how the nutrients in the food we eat are absorbed, distributed, digested and excreted.

This interaction between genes and food could help us to understand how diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, are at an all-time high, especially in indigenous populations.

Indigenous health

Imagine, if you will, a switch that is turned “on” when food is scarce and we need extra calories. Fabulous, right? But what if that “on” switch didn’t turn off when food was in abundance? And it persisted for generations?

Through the study of nutrigenomics, this is exactly what they believe is happening to indigenous populations. Although they are eating the same ‘western’ diet as non-indigenous people, their rate of health problems and disease is skyrocketing.

In fact, cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of death of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in NSW, Qld, WA, SA and the NT between 2010-2014, which equated to about a quarter of deaths in that timeframe.

And, according to the Australian indigenous health infonet website, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people not only develop type 2 diabetes earlier than non-indigenous people, they often die from it at a younger age. Equally, gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM), a form of diabetes that occurs in pregnancy, is more common among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women than non-Indigenous women.

Future generations

While poor diet and exercise affects our health and wellbeing, we may have to look further back than our own lifetimes to understand why. Our genes are passed on down through the generations, so the better educated we are about our food choices, the better we, and future generations, can live a happy, healthy life.

Thanks to nutrigenomics studies, we are starting to understand what foods works for different individuals and their genetic type.

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