Why is it that your friend can eat an entire ring of brie cheese with half a baguette and giant bag of macadamia nuts and remain lean, while you end up with a stomach ache and a 5-lb. weight gain in one day?
Was she just blessed with better genetics? Can you do anything to change your fate so you, too, can shamelessly indulge in bread and cheese?
Believe it or not, human beings actually share more than 99.9% of the exact same genes—and between 95% and 98% of the same genes as chimpanzees. However, the super small genetic variations we do have can actually make a big difference when it comes to nutrition. Though we—by ‘we,’’ I mean researchers—are still figuring it all out, here are some things we do know now about nutrition and genetics at the moment.
The small variations in the genes we do have are called genetic polymorphisms, and they can explain why different people respond differently to various foods and diets.
For example: Caffeine
There’s a gene in our liver that makes an enzyme that breaks down caffeine. Some people have the enzyme that breaks the caffeine down quickly, while others have the enzyme that breaks it down slowly.
As a result, some people process and remove caffeine quickly from our systems, and feel the benefits of antioxidants, while others were born with the slow enzyme, which causes the caffeine to stick around in our bodies longer and can ultimately cause health problems.
So both the study that says caffeine is healthy, and the one that says caffeine is unhealthy, can be accurate. If you want to nerd out, you can read more about this caffeine enzyme here.
Another example: Broccoli
Isothiocyanates is found in broccoli. It can turn on a gene that is known to detoxify cancer-causing chemicals, as well as other toxins.
If you don’t eat broccoli, the gene won’t turn on. If you eat broccoli, the gene gets turned on. That being said, only some people have the broccoli gene, so it can be argued that broccoli is better for some of us than it is for others.
Or consider this:
Recently, researchers discovered a link between obesity and the ability for a person to make amalyse, an enzyme found in the saliva that’s primarily responsible for breaking down starch/carbohydrates.
In short, people with lower levels of the AMY1 gene don’t break down starch all that well. This means their bodies don’t love carbs as much as those who have higher levels of AMY1. Digging a little deeper, those whose ancestors ate a high starch diet tend to have more AMY1, and can tolerate a higher carb diet. Pretty fascinating stuff!
Read more here if you’re interested in learning more.
If you’re sitting there and getting angry and bitter that you don’t think you have the good broccoli or caffeine gene—let alone the gene that lets you pound a bag of macadamia nuts consequence-free—don’t get too down on yourself. There are certainly things you CAN control, both with your diet and lifestyle choices, to help your genes function optimally.
For example. Cooked tomatoes
When they’re cooked, tomatoes contain something called lycopene. Lycopenes switch off growth-promoting genes in the prostate, thus reducing your chance of getting prostate cancer. So in essence, cooked tomatoes have the ability to change your genes and protect you.
Beyond just specific macronutrients, our genes can actually be influenced positively or negatively by many of our choices—by things like nutrient deficiencies or excesses, how much sunlight and Vitamin D we get, toxins, bacteria and viruses, exercise levels, alcohol, stress and sleep.
In other words, yes we’re born the way we’re born, but you can change the expression of your genes to be as optimal as possible by eating well, working out, sleeping well etc, which will then help improve your metabolism and decrease your chances of getting various diseases and illnesses.
While the science is still evolving, but it’s becoming more and more clear that the more we know about our genetic makeup, the more we’ll be able to influence our genes through diet and other means to help our future selves.
Have you ever considered DNA testing to help steer your diet? There are tons of companies out there that do it. If you have dabbled with it, let us know what, if anything, you have learned from the experience. Here’s one company who is making strides in DNA and diet.