Friday, January 22, 2016

Learning about Nutrigenomics and Epigenetics can be Empowering!


“We are, quite literally, what we eat as well as what our parents and grandparents ate”
                                    ------------- Dr Randy Jirtle, Geneticist.

     Remember when Hippocrates declared “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”? He knew a fundamental truth which mankind has started re-discovering only over the past one and a half centuries. In the last decade or so it has actually been a golden age for Nutritionists as more people are willing to work towards wellness than ever.

     Also over the past decade, researchers have been focusing on a mind-boggling new field in Genetics - the fact that you can turn on or off certain genes simply by the way you live! This field is called Epigenetics, the study of changes in gene expression caused by outside influences rather than existing gene structure. More importantly, many of these changes are heritable – they are passed on to your children… and their children.

     Quite simply, your lifestyle, food habits, emotional experiences (happiness / stress), physical traumas, exercise, chemical / pollution exposure, etc. can switch either beneficial or harmful genes ON or OFF.

     We are born with a set of genes which determine our physical characteristics like eye colour, hair texture amongst all the other things which make us human. These genes are responsible for every biological reaction that goes on in the body. They are essential for everything from our heartbeat to hormone levels. The basic nature of these genes doesn't change easily. But gene expression / activation / protection which is influenced by the factors in the previous paragraph, then directs critical body processes affecting aging, preservation of normal health and modifying your risk for chronic disease.

     Nutritionists have always maintained that while you are stuck with certain bad genes, these don't really determine your health – only you can....through the way you live. That philosophy has been validated by Epigenetics research which shows that you have more control than you think over whether you will develop disease or stay healthy.

     The implications are life-altering…….while we all have disease causing genes that can potentially be activated, not everyone has the same ones. For example, some people have a version of a gene that makes their coffee intake a risk factor for heart disease while others have the version that effectively deals with caffeine in coffee such that it actually lowers their risk of heart disease.  That is why different studies on the same topic have found different results – some studies say the caffeine in coffee is good for you while others find it is not – because of different genotypes of the subjects! Same goes for alcohol and chocolate. So the lesson here is ...... if you don't have the habit, don't start it for the sake of your health – it is not worth the riskwhat if you don’t have the right genes?

     The study of the effect of food and it's components on gene expression has been termed 'Nutrigenomics'. Some findings which have come out of Epigenetics and Nutrigenomics........

- Regular exercise switches on around 100 cancer-preventing genes and switches off at least 70 cancer-promoting ones.

- Regular exercise turns off genes that encourage storage of excess fat, especially on the liver.

- Don't drink sugar – rich sports drinks while exercising. This suppresses genes which promote fat-burning!

- Folate or Folic acid which is one of the B - complex vitamins is considered an important gene- protective nutrient – include natural sources of folate like green leafy veggies and whole pulses and fresh lentils for the whole family regularly.

- Other vitamins and amino acids have been found to positively influence genes, they are Riboflavin, B6 and Choline, Serine, Glycine, Methionine and Cysteine. These compounds are omnipresent in a varied and healthy diet.

- Regular olive oil consumption reduces the expression of 98 genes involved in the inflammatory responses which cause heart disease and auto-immune disorders like Arthritis.

- Eating low glycaemic index carbs (whole grain cereals and pulses) during pregnancy benefits the foetus by decreasing it’s risk of developing diabetes in later life.

     So how do we now utilise this information? It would be easy to get excited and try to keep track of the latest research on the subject but in reality, developing affordable genetic testing for the general public in India will take a couple of decades...don't hold your breath. Firstly, they have to isolate all the modifiable genes which runs into hundreds of thousands. Then comes figuring out the effect each gene has and calculating the health implications thereof. Extremely complex computer algorithms have to be formulated to process all this data which then has to be interpreted by geneticists.

     Ultimately, the purpose of such exhaustive research is to customize nutrition advice to an individual’s genetic makeup. Such a personalized plan would take into account individual nutrient deficiencies. Customized nutritional supplements may replace every pill in the medicine cabinet, finally validating the industry that makes them. However, if I’m around when all this happens, I would still advise you to get most of your nutrients through natural dietary sources!

     There is no need to wait for a test to tell you what you know you should already be doing..... reduce consumption of processed food, unhealthy fats, sugar and salt; include more natural foods and whole grains instead and while you are at it – GO ORGANIC. Start exercising at least 4- 5 times a week. Live an active, fulfilling life that includes time for leisure, meditation and hobbies. Reduce commute time if possible and definitely exposure to pollution and household chemicals! Also, ensure that you eat responsibly before and during pregnancy and even throughout nursing. It's that simple, preventive action is always the best.

     Also, don't worry about single nutrients and their impact on your genes – that's the problem with nutrition research – they try to isolate the specific data related to one nutrient at a time but miss the big picture – do you eat a single nutrient at a time or a balanced diet delivering many known and unknown beneficial and life-sustaining nutrients?


Friday, January 15, 2016

Vani Hari... up close and book review: The Food Babe Way

It was a sultry September evening at 'Spaces' - a beautiful meeting place for the organically minded citizens of Chennai (although other types of events happen here too). We were gathered to hear Vani Hari, aka, the Food Babe, speak about her journey of discovering a healthy lifestyle, getting off all allopathic medication and becoming an activist who is currently the most feared person by food manufacturers in the US.

After her talk, the contents of which I had already gleaned from her website (and which might not have been too relevant for the current company of small organic farmers and consumers -but did inspire them nevertheless), I was expecting to interview her for Parent Circle, the magazine I write for with a little regularity. She requested that we do it on-line and I acceded with gratitude for then I was able to talk to her for a few minutes on the GMO scenario here, her book (which she signed right there for me and others), her latest investigation and how long it would take to wipe off Monsanto from the face of the earth. She mentioned that she was soon to visit Vandana Shiva, my hero, in Dehradun. I almost swooned.

I had been following Vani Hari and her website for a year or so and had been blown away by the way she went after food companies for the truth about their products and ingredients. She has no fear and speaks her mind at the risk of on-line and real attacks. This is living dangerously but she wouldn't have it any other way. A champion debater during her school years, this skill has been most useful when constructing successful on-line petitions to 'Big Food' companies to list their ingredients honestly, remove harmful ones and source better foods for their products.

Another wonderful thing she does is support travellers by posting about how to make healthy food choices while on the road which comes from her personal experience of being a successful executive on the road for most of the week. 

I could go on and on but you'll get all the info you need about her on her website, here. I do encourage you to visit, subscribe to her newsletter and use these resources to MAKE BIG CHANGES IN YOUR FAMILY'S HEALTH. Of course, most of the information pertains to foods available in the West but more and more of them are finding their way into local stores and the information on harmful ingredients is relevant world-wide.

Coming to her book, The Food Babe Way.. 

It is a quick read for those who read voraciously and are interested in regaining their health through changing how they eat. 

Her style of writing is straightforward but full of emotion. Quite passionate about communicating every detail of her journey, she gives a visceral account of the tactics resorted to by food manufacturers to hide what's really in their food and how they bully anyone who dares ask for the truth. 

She demystifies several famous 'diets', weighing their pros and cons. She lists the 'sickening fifteen' chemical non-food ingredients in use by food manufacturers throughout the world and why they should be avoided. The book has many delicious whole and healthy recipes and a list of books, cookbooks, magazines, websites and Alternative Healing institutes which is a great resource for anyone starting their wellness journey.

Vani has compiled a behaviour change program called '21 days of good food and good habits'  and everyone looking for answers on wellness and healing current disease should act upon these. I disagree with a couple of the points because a lot rides on individualistic treatment and also location specificity. 

For example, Vani recommends drinking a green drink every day.... eating / drinking raw greens in India has to come with a how-to, step-by-step cleaning process since most people here don't buy chemically cleaned greens and these may contain parasites. 

So, after thorough cleaning with water (soak and rinse three times..the last under running filtered water),you might want to blanch the greens for a minute in hot water. Or alternatively, do a potassium permanganate / tamarind soak before the last rinse. Oh, and chew your green (or any other) juice for maximum absorption of nutrients in the gut.

All in all, a good read written authentically with enough info to turn the head of the most ardent 'zero nutrition food' addict. And, most importantly, giving a new direction to search for wellness. 

The world is shifting from blind faith in so-called modern (sometimes even pseudo) 'science' to evidence-based trust in the humblest of Mother Nature's offerings. The pursuit of true wellness is a mirage no longer. 

This movement IS happening, spreading like wildfire - purely based on implementation and results... and all those big conglomerates peddling disease and destruction are running for cover because all the money in the world can't hide the fact that humankind doesn't and never did need them in the first place.

Coming soon.........Vani answered a few questions in an email interview and this along with my own list of Indian superfoods will be published in a month or so.