How the mainstream’s tepid approach to basic truths about the connections between health and diet is keeping us a profoundly sick nation.
Nutrigenomics is the study of the effects of food on our genetic expression. It is the idea that food is more than nutrition, it is information. Integrative health practitioners have embraced nutrigenomics for a number of years, but basic internet searches would have you believe it is a fad or controversial. Instead, Big Food and those on their payroll (including dietician associations and the government) peddle the myth of “energy balance,” that health, particularly weight loss, is a function of calories in vs. calories out. This false advice is perpetuating the chronic disease epidemic.
To put things in perspective, a 2016 study of human longevity found that 25 percent of health outcomes can be attributed to genetics; the other 75 percent are caused by environmental factors. What we eat is among the most important of those environmental factors.
Dr. Mark Hyman put it succinctly: “Genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.” Nutrition is the center of nutrigenomics and what we will focus on in this article, but it’s important to note that other factors like exercise, sleep, stress management, and exposure to toxins are other important environmental determinants of health.
How do foods affect gene expression? Simply put, certain nutrients act as ligands that bind to DNA, affecting the instructions carried out by the cell (such as protein production).
The research so far is quite compelling. One study found that a diet of 65 percent carbohydrates caused a number of classes of genes to work “overtime,” which affected genes that cause inflammation in the body, but also genes associated with the development of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, dementia, and type 2 diabetes. Naturally-occurring compounds, like plant phenols, vitamins, and carotenoids, have been shown to reduce inflammation that is linked with lifestyle diseases. Animal studies have found that the Western diet alters gene expression in ways that may lead to neurodegenerative and cognitive disorders. Other animal studies have shown that fatty acids have an impact on the expression of more than 300 genes.
Why does all of this matter? This research is providing validation for something that many of us have known for a long time: food is medicine. A 2020 review published in the British Medical Journal showed that food and nutrition interventions reduced hospitalizations, lowered health care costs, and improved mood and mental health.
The burgeoning field of nutrigenomics research also shatters the myths propagated by the food industry and their cronies, both in government and in organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). Boiled down, the myth is simple: the source of calories is irrelevant; eat less and exercise more. Drink as much soda as you want, just exercise more to burn off the calories, and you’ll lose weight! In various ways, this is the message broadcasted by the CDC, the AND, and, of course, the food industry. In fact, we reported a number of years ago that CDC officials were found to have ties to beverage industry front groups perpetuating this idea of “energy balance.”
Nutrigenomics obviously shows energy balance to be a farce, but it is also preposterous on its face. For a 60-pound child, working off the calories in one Coke means jogging for more than an hour. And that’s just for a single cola. What of the calories from a Happy Meal or a KFC box? How many more hours of jogging are required? And of course, jogging won’t fix the central problem, which is that the body is being flooded with fructose, something that nature never intended or anticipated. Not only are you then not receiving the “good” information from fruits and vegetables, you’re receiving disease-causing information. A recent study found that fructose alters several brain genes, leading to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s.
Nutrigenomics holds great promise, and further research can elucidate how diets can be individualized based on our genetics to optimize our health. But we would do well to take seriously the idea that food is information. What information do we want to give our body? Processed foods laden with sugar and unhealthy fats, with soda and French fries, or a diet based on healthy, nutrient-packed whole foods?