Is DNA Your Destiny?

Thinking of getting one of those DNA testing kits?  Aside from the Ancestry tests, the tests for your future health risks may be questionable and at this point you may want to save your money. Here is why.

A new outlook on genetics is called epigenetics  and involves the concept of environmental factors (including diet) affecting how genes are expressed or inhibited. Thanks to this relatively new science, we now know that experiences of previous generations may show up in your health and well-being. Many of the risks for chronic diseases – including obesity, diabetes type 2, high blood pressure, heart disease and dementia can be traced back to your biological roots and the experiences your parent and even grandpaents had. Similarly, the food you eat may affect your children and grandchildren.

Is Your DNA Your Destiny?

Gene Expression: the process by which a cell converts the genetic code into RNA and protein

Epigenetics: the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in the DNA sequence itself

DNA Methylation: A chemical reaction that occurs in a cell when a methyl group attaches to DNA, changing the expression of the gene to which it is attached.

Methyl Group: A type of molecular structure that occurs in many compounds, CH3, for example.

Methyl Donor: Nutrients, like folate and vitamin B12 that when metabolized can donate methyl groups during the process.

To fully illustrate the epigenetic process, one must tell the story of the agouti gene.

The Result of Methylation

Methylation Effects in the DNA

Both these mice have the gene called the agouti gene that tends to produce fat, yellow pups, so we want to silence the expression of the gene if possible. There is a way.  The mom of the brown mouse was fed B vitamins which silenced the gene. This produced brown pups with normal appetites resulting in a thin, healthy mouse.

Without altering the genomic structure, agouti moms were then able to produce healthy brown pups of normal weight and less prone to diseases. Even more surprising, when the offspring become mothers themselves, their babies can also be healthy, even without further vitamin supplementation. The yellow variant had been silenced, and that muted effect was inherited by the offspring. 

How did this occur?  Some nutrients silence genes by providing methylation (adding a methyl group (CH3); others activate genes by inhibiting methylation. It’s like throwing a wrench into the DNA to stop the expression of a gene or removing the wrench to allow the expression of the gene. The B vitamins acted as methyl donors that caused methyl groups to attach more frequently to the agouti gene in utero, inhibiting its expression. (See the black dots in the diagram above).   Silence or inhibiting depends on what the gene does: e.g., silencing a gene that stimulates cancer growth is beneficial; silencing a gene that suppresses cancer growth would be harmful.

In any case, your lifestyle choices may play a role in your future health status.

It must be remembered that with any new concept, doubts and skepticism will occur. It must be recognized that we are not mice or lab rats, but the same effect has been shown by studying human interactions and is needed for more research to examine this interesting hypothesis. The   implications are enormous in that we may be able to improve our health status by choosing healthy habits and lifestyles such as diet, exercise, stopping smoking, for example.

“The packaging of the gene may be as important as, or even more important than, the gene itself, and these epigenetic changes are predominantly influenced by environmental factors.” The Cancer Code, A Revolutionary New Understanding of a Medical Mystery Dr. Jason Fung, 2020.

The Pros and Cons of the Paleolithic Diet

The Paleolithic diet has been around for a few years and in my opinion is a pretty good diet, but alas as with every restrictive diet, there are caveats.

The following article comprehensively covers the pros and cons of this eating pattern. It is based on the facts (as we know them) that our ancestors only had access to certain foods and that our genetic development is presumed to have evolved from inclusion and exclusion of these foods into our current dietary pattern. Evidence for this is presumed to be accurate – however, we truly do not know what our Paleo ancestors really ate.  Our ancestors lived in diverse environments; therefore, their diets were dependent on the foods found there. There is a great deal of controversy about the possibility that some ate a diverse plant-based diet, e.g. hunting was not so reliable.

Most evidence is based on our contemporary hunter-gatherer societies which exhibit less chronic disease than those populations that follow the current American diet. For example, there are no Hadza adults diagnosed with diabetes in Tanzania, while the Tsimané people in Bolivia have an 80 percent lower rate of atherosclerosis compared to people in the U.S. The Maasai community in Kenya that relies on red meat, blood and milk is also known for little to none cardiovascular diseases.

The Pros and Cons

Our ancestors and modern-day hunter-gatherers ate more animal-based foods, which contain good amounts of high-quality protein, calcium, iron, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins B12 and K2. Such nutrients are commonly found in seafood, red meat, pastured eggs and liver.

An ancestral diet removes refined sugar, grains and seed oils from one’s daily meals. Avoiding these modern products helps reduce markers of inflammation, leading to improvements in blood pressure, waist circumference and lipid profiles, components of the metabolic syndrome.

One study showed that people who consumed less added sugar, refined grains and processed foods could significantly reduce weight in 12 months. The ancestral diets provide foods that are more satiating, which help people consume fewer calories.

The Paleo diet excludes extremely calorie dense foods (starchy foods) as well as many processed and snack foods.

However the diet eliminates two major food groups (dairy and grains (enriched or whole).  This puts at risk adequate vitamin D and calcium levels as well as the other nutrients found within these foods.

The Paleo diet provides some essential nutrients and may appeal to some people that are not interested in a total plant based eating pattern, i.e., dedicated carnivores.

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