We’ve all heard the statement, “You are what you eat.” It sounds so simple, and it probably gets overused. But there’s much more to it.
What you eat before you have children affects you, of course, but we now know it has a profound effect on the health of your children and even your grandchildren. This is the science of epigenetics, the medicine of the future.
What Is Epigenetics?
Epigenetics is the emerging science of how food and other aspects of your environment affect the expression of your genes. Until just a few years ago, science told us that to a large degree our health was determined by whether we inherited good genes or bad genes from our parents. But epigenetics has shown us that, although we inherit a specific genetic identity, how those genes are expressed in terms of wellness or illness is largely determined by what we eat and how we live.
In reality, less than 10 percent and probably as little as 2 or 3 percent of illnesses are due to our inherited genes. The other 90 to 98 percent is determined by how we live and what we choose to eat.
Although we now have an abundance of evidence that you can turn on good genes and turn off bad genes, I want to tell you about two specific studies that demonstrate the profound significance of that fact.
Francis Pottenger’s Cats
It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that when Pottenger changed the diet from what he called their optimal diet to one that was more processed, the cats were not as healthy. When he kept constant that same deficient diet, the next generation of kittens were even less healthy than their parents, and the third generation’s health was even more profoundly affected!
By the second generation, he observed that the once perfect cats now had narrowed faces, crooked teeth, fatty livers, enlarged hearts, social dysfunction, and even sexual dysfunction. By the third generation, the cats were no longer able to reproduce. Does this sound to any of you like what we’re seeing today in the United States? We are now three generations into a profound change in the American diet, and when you put it into the context of epigenetics, it is not turning out that well.
Swedish Epidemiological Study
The second study I would like to talk about is an epidemiological study that was conducted with historical data from a remote village in Northern Sweden. For centuries the inhabitants of Overkalix, a remote village, relied on their access to fish supplemented by crops such as potatoes and grains and farm animals such as pigs. Because these Swedes kept meticulous records of the successes and failures of their crops as well as the birth and death records of their residents, a Swedish epidemiologist and a British geneticist were able to show from that data that the abundance or scarcity of food particularly during the slow growth period (between 8 and 11 years of age for girls and 9 and 12 years of age for boys) of the inhabitants had a profound effect on the health of future generations.
The most startling conclusion was that when the children had access to an overabundance of high-glycemic foods, their grandchildren had significantly shorter lifespans — up to 31 years shorter. Furthermore, they more commonly died from heart disease and diabetes. With our extraordinary rates of heart disease and diabetes in the U.S. today, we just have to ask, “Are we now seeing the effects of the switch to a low fat, high carbohydrate, highly processed diet that we undertook three generations ago?” It’s definitely something to think about.
Looking at this data can be terrifying in the context of what we’ve done to our health and the health of our children, but here’s the good news. After the third generation of cats in his study could no longer reproduce, Pottenger reversed the diets of the degenerated cats and they could once again reproduce and have healthier kittens. Although it took several generations of a whole-food diet to restore the cats to their original perfection, they immediately started their journey back to health.