Food Versus Genes

STEPFANIE LAM

A9R21DD
Art by Caroline Nickerson

My favorite days are crisp Saturday mornings because the farmers market is open and I can acquire fresh, organic produce. The street exudes an aroma of ripe strawberries, delectable peaches and turgid grapes. The overwhelming shift towards eating organic, GMO-free foods has changed the way many restaurants advertise their goods. As the saying goes, “You are what you eat.” Our society often vilifies certain foods and praises others, such as kale. However, this may be counterproductive. Recent studies show that genetic makeup has more of an impact on an individual’s well-being than the food they eat. For instance, many commonly accepted “healthy” foods may not always be the best choice for every person. Most of the FDA approved list of “healthy” foods was created without the individual in mind; instead they designed a general list.

As society is shifting more towards individualized services—from designing your own burrito at Chipotle to creating your own Bimbimbap (Korean rice) bowl, we are in an era where customization is all the rage. Therefore, why not customize your diet based on your genetics? There are already so many conflicting pieces of advice. Some studies claim that drinking wine is good for preventing heart disease, but others warn that drinking wine can raise blood pressure and damage vital organs. Additionally, examples of individuals who are genetically programmed against certain types of food include the prevalence of lactose intolerance in Asians, or a deficiency in the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, which results in the accumulation of acetaldehyde—often referred to as ‘Asian glow.’ People of Asian and some Native American descent sometimes lack the genetic code in their liver to create this enzyme. This special customization of diet based on an individual’s genetic makeup has been dubbed “nutrigenomics” (Neeha, Kinth 2013).

Genome Magazine featured the importance of a designed genetics-based personal diet. A fifty-two-year-old woman discovered that asparagus, broccoli, and salmon, three of what are often deemed as “super healthy foods” negatively impacted her health. Prior to her discovery that certain healthy foods could still negatively impact her health, she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, which is an immune disorder where your body overproduces the thyroid hormone. However, her health did not improve after treatment for the disease. She began to eliminate foods that caused her body to react negatively, and referenced genomics to help her tailor the diet. The results were amazing, granted that she could relapse, but she was able to decrease her medicine intake significantly. She is now able to exercise regularly without any pain. According to CENG (Center of Excellence for Nutritional Genomics), nutrigenomics is a way “to reduce and ultimately eliminate health disparities through the study of diet-genome interactions as they relate to chronic disease and certain cancers.” Though nutrients can affect the expression of our genes, our genes can also play a role in how our body responds to these nutrients (Kaput, 2008). Tailoring a diet to an individual genetic profile can potentially decrease the use of medication, as well as help prevent diet-related disease such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Most importantly, it can accelerate the development of low-cost and effective healthcare solutions in developing countries.

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