Have you ever felt confused about what you should eat?
When I was growing up, things were pretty simple. My grandmother always told me to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, plenty of whole grains, and a decent amount of dairy. We lived on a farm, so fresh eggs and meat were never more than a few yards away. We even had a seemingly never-ending supply of goat’s milk, which I always thought was disgusting, but which my uncle swore tasted just like cow’s milk. (He used to try and trick me by filling up empty store-bought milk containers with fresh goat’s milk, but I could always tell the difference.)
Over the past few years though, things seem to have gotten a lot harder to figure out in the diet department. First there was the whole cholesterol thing. Eggs? Bad. Milk? Bad. Goat’s milk? Really bad. (Okay, that last one was a personal opinion). Then some diets emerged claiming that wheat was horrible for your body. Next came the war on carbs.
Then my wife was diagnosed with celiac disease. This means every time she eats wheat, rye,or barley, her body starts to wage war against itself. Last week my dentist told me that my kids should avoid eating fruit because it has too much sugar. Pretty much all I’m left with are vegetables, and apparently even that isn’t as simple as I thought.
The sad part about this food quagmire is that I’m a scientist that studies metabolism all day long, so you’d think I’d have it all figured out. Unfortunately I mainly study bacteria, and they haven’t reached the fad-diet stage of their lives yet, so no help there.
So am I killing my kids when I offer an apple for a snack? I thought science had already proven at some point that an apple a day kept the doctor away. Carbs are bad? What about all those oriental diets that consist almost entirely of rice and raw fish? I thought I read somewhere that chocolate prevented strokes, but isn’t saturated fat the highway to heart disease? Should we go Atkins, paleo, vegan, or kosher? If all of these diets work for so many people, why hasn’t the FDA come out with the octo-lacto-vegan food pyramid yet?
I’m going to let you in on the big secret here. It’s a secret that everyone working in genetics knows about, and which we continue to find more and more evidence for. Decades of multi-billion dollar research has gone into uncovering this one startling fact that is going to blow your mind: Everyone is different.
Boom. I just blew your mind, didn’t I?
It turns out, that this is the very reason why the paleo diet might work great for your neighbor, but leaves you feeling cranky and irritable. Why your best friend got a supermodel body builder physique by eating a vegan diet for a week, while the only thing you got out of it was an upset stomach.
To be a little more scientific about things, your metabolism is influenced by at least four different factors:
Our DNA, (variously referred to as your genes, your geneotype, your genetic makeup, or what you inherited from Uncle George), controls a large part of what our body is capable of. This is what most people think of when we consider what makes us different from other people, but which is often ignored in dietary studies, even by scientists who should know better by now.
The second and third items are collectively called epigenetics. Sometimes item 2 is referred to as genetic imprinting. It turns out that aside from the DNA you got from your parents during your life, some aspect of your parents’ behavior can cause chemical changes to the DNA they passed on to you. What makes these changes distinct from just being part of your DNA is that they aren’t part of your genetic sequence. Instead they’re little chemical bits that get attached onto your DNA at various locations. These changes can affect how your DNA deals with certain stimuli, including metabolic stimuli.
As an interesting side note, everyone used to believe in genetic imprinting, but then everyone decided it was all hogwash, but now it turns out that some parts of it were true all along. As you might imagine, the story is a bit more complicated than that, but this is a good reason why you should always have the most up to date science textbooks in your local library.
Aside from the changes your parents’ behavior made to the DNA they passed on to you, once you’re in possession of that DNA, your own behavior can cause epigenetic modifications as well. This means that while you might have a certain metabolic response to a food when you’re a kid, you might have a very different response when you’re an adult. Even more interesting, not only can how your body responds to what you eat (aka your metabolism) be influenced by these epigenetic changes, but it turns out that your epigenetics can also be influenced by what you eat.
Finally, one of the more active areas of research right now is the extremely complex interaction between the thousands of microbes in the human gut and their impact on human health. Everything from metabolic rate to auto-immune diseases and cancer risks are thought to have some link to what types of bacteria are present in your gut. There are so many different strains of bacteria, each with their own genetics and epigenetics, all living inside your gut, that the possible interactions between you and them are nearly infinite.
Further complicating this is the fact that the type and relative amounts of these bacteria that you have in your gut (called an enterotype) are changing all of the time. They can be influenced by what you eat, medicines you take, illnesses you get, and even where you live. And every time we think we’re close to understanding how to classify these things, new information surfaces to show that we still have a long way to go.
So where does that leave a poor hapless father struggling to figure out what to feed his kids? Honestly with five kids, if my wife and I happen to find a single meal that everyone will eat without complaint we call that a small miracle.
However here are some thoughts to consider:
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