Everyone’s familiar with the saying you are what you eat, but what if it were the other way around and we can eat for who we are?

While still an emerging scientific field, nutrigenomics, the study of how food influences our genes, is poised to become a game changer in how we use nutrition to prevent and treat a variety of diseases.

Nutrigenomics studies how nutrients and other bioactive components of food impact key metabolic and physiological processes by “turning on” and “turning off” genes.

So while we can’t change our genes, we can influence our gene expression through nutrition and lifestyle.  Nutrigenomics gives us a profound understanding of the tenet that Food Is Medicine.

Did you ever wonder why certain diets work wonders for some and not for others?  Or while some people can live to a ripe old age smoking and drinking, while other people die of lung cancer or heart disease in their 40’s?   Or where one twin develops Type II diabetes while the other one doesn’t?

The answer is a highly personal equation:  DNA + Diet and Lifestyle = Health

Before we dive deeper, let’s review a little Genetics 101:

Genes are what make up your DNA.   Your DNA holds the instructions for building the proteins that carry out the various functions in a cell.

Your genome is your entire set of DNA.  It’s what you’re born with and cannot be changed.

Your epigenome is a set of chemical switches that can tell your genome what to do.  It determines which genes are activated or left inactive thus controlling the production of proteins in particular cells.

Your epigenome is affected by lifestyle and environmental factors including, diet,  exercise, stress, smoking, infection and sleep.

Sounds like science fiction, but it’s very real.

First, nutrigenomics looks at how common variants in the genome explain the differences in response to different diets.So for instance, it can explain why some people can eat a high fat diet and have no problem with their cholesterol levels while others may experience the exact opposite response.  Second, the research looks at how certain nutrients in food affect genes that impact important metabolic processes in the body.  For instance, compounds found in broccoli can switch on a gene that helps the body detoxify some of the chemicals we’re exposed to every day. But this gene is missing in about 20% of the general population who won’t get the detoxification benefits.

Dr. Ahmed El-Sohemy, one of the world’s top nutrigenomics experts, explains how this research can help explain the inconsistencies in previous nutritional studies and in time it can help us understand how to eat or which supplements or medications to use based on our genetic profile.

For example, in some people, creatine supplementation provides large increases in performance and increases lean mass. In others with different DNA, there is no response at all.

Is coffee good or bad?  It depends on your genes.  Studies with caffeinated coffee show that for some individuals, drinking coffee lowers the risk of heart attacks. But in other individuals, with a variant of the gene CYP1A2 (a gene that breaks down caffeine in the liver), they have an increased risk of a heart attack when increasing consumption of caffeinated coffee.

One of the fastest growing applications is using nutrigenomics to personalize nutrition to prevent and treat disease including cancer, heart disease and obesity.

The field of nutrigenomics is advancing rapidly with many interesting studies looking at how different genotypes respond to different diets, nutritional supplements, even looking at how our genes can impact food preferences by studying the genes that affect our the receptors on our tongues and in our brains.

There are already several companies selling mail order kits that allow customers to test their DNA with a cheek swab and the promise to create a nutrigenomic profile for a person.   Make no mistake though the field is in its infancy stages.

Nonetheless, in the not so distant future, nutrigenomics will mean a highly personalized approach to health.  The field has the potential to dispel a lot of dieting myths, get rid of the fads and gimmicks and actually give people a prescription for health that’s tailored for them.

It’s an incredibly empowering reality.  The study of nutrigenomics shows us that we do not have to be a victim of our genes and that we have more  power to create our best health than we’ve previously been led to believe.  Because while genetics provides valuable information, our genes are not our destiny.

And forget food as just calories, each bite of food is powerful information that communicates with your genes, literally programming your cells with messages of health and well-being or disease and dysfunction.  So the next time you take that bite of food, ask yourself what messages do I want to be sending to my genome?

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