Genetic Nutrition: Effects of Genetic Factors on Nutrition
Some of you reading this post may be wondering what exactly genetic nutrition refers to. Fear not, it is not a gene-eating diet that attacks your health. Instead, the term refers to personalized nutrition tailored to your very genes. However, let’s got a bit beyond that and look at it another way as well—more of an anthropological way. Even with genetic variation, our genes have always been trained to respond to the foods we eat. In fact, this dates back to the beginnings of humankind, when we ate either a meat-based or plant-based diet, but it was the cross-talk between genes and the foods that were ingested that helped humankind survive.
And just what, you may wonder, does that mean?
Well, just as genetics has made its way into several other scientific fields as a sister-discipline, it has slowly taken on the field of nutrition as well. In short, genetic nutrition, or nutrigenetics, or nutritional genomics, is basically ingesting the kinds of food that best jibe with your genes. In more of a long form, genetic nutrition refers to the analysis and investigation of genes as means to find out what we are most efficient at metabolizing, what the by-products of metabolism are, and whether or not there are undesired side effects to the types of foods we choose to eat because they are not compatible with our genome.
And while all of the aforementioned terms essentially refer to similar things in that they imply the concept that one size does not fit all when it comes to nutrition, there are some differences between them. Nutritional genomics addresses the various different responses individuals have when they are all given the same food to eat. Furthermore, while the “omics” discipline is very similar to others in a sense that is about the biology of individuals, this omics field focuses on preventing disease and ensuring healthy progression into age via the manipulation of genet-diet interactions. Similar to nutritional genomics and yet different, nutrigenetics investigates how people’s genes determine the effects that food has on them, or how our genetic blueprint changes as an effect of the food we take in.
This is all very interesting, you may think at this point. However, it is actually very serious. Certain genes code for certain proteins, or enzymes, that are absolutely imperative when it comes to breaking down food. Take the condition of lactose intolerance, for example. Individuals who are “allergic to milk” are said to be lactose intolerant. To put it more simply, it means that they lack the proper enzyme that is important for the digestion of lactose, which is one of the main ingredients of dairy products. This enzyme, lactase, is so important that its lack of function causes several undesirable side effects following the consumption of milk or any milk-based products. These include bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps, to name a few.
Another example is either sensitivity or intolerance to gluten. Gluten refers to a mixture of proteins found in wheat. These proteins are what make the dough so elastic. Gluten sensitivity is a condition whereby the body treats gluten as a foreign invader. If you are sensitive to gluten, your symptoms are milder and include bloating, diarrhea, an upset stomach, and joint pain, to name a few. An into lerance to gluten, however, is something much more serious. The body basically goes into attack mode and treats gluten as if it were some kind of a virus. It triggers the immune system to begin attacking the ‘foreign invader,’ and the results can be much more serious than those associated with gluten sensitivity. These include symptoms as severe as intestinal damage in response to gluten. This condition is also known as celiac disease, which we won’t get into here, but it is an autoimmune disorder that must be managed by those who have it in order to maintain a normal life.
To take this another step further, much research has been directed at the interplay between foods and cancer, also known as diet-related carcinogenesis. It has been shown that diet is a mixture of a few things when it comes to cancer. These include protective, carcinogenic as well as mutagenic ingredients. Most of these are broken down by various proteins—enzymes—that are encoded by various genes. So it is clear to see how mutations in those genes that are responsible for such important enzymes can actually lead to cancer. Overall, there are approximately 25,000 various food components that are found in the foods that humans eat that are responsible for the aforementioned processes of breaking down important items. Out of that number, approximately 500 have been somehow associated with the progression of cancer.
Overall, it should come as no surprise that genetics has made its way into nutrition, as well. And that is luckily the case. Given how we are all very different, genetically speaking, it would only be logical to be able to choose what we will eat based on our genetic background. And, who knows, perhaps sticking to a diet that is optimized to one’s very own genetic blueprint might be lifesaving. It could possibly reduce the risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, issues with blood pressure, and even obesity. Furthermore, the efforts of nutrigenomics go beyond simply finding out what each person’s nutrigenomic profile is as well as their genes. In fact, the field has two aims that it hopes to achieve. The first is associated with disease prevention and healthy aging, namely providing dietary guidelines and nutrients that are based on genetic profile. The other aim is to eventually contribute to individualized medical nutrition therapy in order to manage conditions that have been triggered by a mismatch between a person’s genes and the diet they follow.
There you are, a bit about nutrigenetics, nutrigenomics, and a few other things that are good to know within this field. If you are experiencing any discomfort following any foods you eat, it is not such a wrong assumption that you may not be genetically predisposed to digest those food items. Genetic testing might be able to help in that case.