I’ve written about the issue of genetic and epigenetic factors in several other posts, including:
Live long and prosper… or degenerate and die prematurely?
It’s your choice! In your genes, or in your hands?
The epigenetics of cancer and changing your genes.
Now another landmark article has been published which further reinforces this crucial point: your genes are not your destiny! In a nutshell (or should that be a peapod?), eating a diet high in fruits and raw or lightly cooked vegetables was found to cancel out the effect of having a gene variant that is well known to be associated with an increased risk of developing heart disease.
For those who like to avoid personal responsibility and blame their poor health on genes they can’t control, this is bad news. But I’m guessing that if you’re reading this article, you’re not in that camp, so this latest study is all good news for you.
The research focused on a gene variant called 9p21. Carriers of this variant (known as an allele) are well-known to be at much higher risk of heart disease – in fact, the association between being a carrier of a 9p21 risk allele and developing heart disease, is considered one of the most robust by geneticists. In this study, carriers of any of the risk alleles were found to have up to a 20% higher chance of having a heart attack.
The researchers analysed variants of 9p21 in over 27,000 individuals who were enrolled in two different studies:
The INTERHEART study is a case-control study, comparing 8,114 men and women of varying ethnic backgrounds who have suffered an acute non-fatal heart attack (cases), to similar subjects without heart disease (controls). Case-control studies are retrospective – they involve interviewing people about their health behaviours prior to experiencing a health problem they’ve just been diagnosed with. This makes such studies prone to recall bias: the tendency people have (intentionally or unintentionally), to be somewhat less than accurate in their recollections about past health behaviours.
To make their study more robust, the authors therefore also included 19,129 participants of the FINRISK study. This prospective study assesses participants’ diets at various
time-points before they develop the disease being studied. The health behaviours of those who develop the disease are then compared with those who don’t.
Both arms of the study found the same outcome. Individuals who had the dodgy gene variant, but also consumed a diet high in fruits and raw or lightly cooked vegetables, cancelled out their excess risk of heart disease. They had no greater risk than people who had a ‘normal’ gene.
BUT the combination of the risk allele and a diet low in fruit and vegetables conferred the greatest cardiovascular disease risk of any combination of factors.
Study co-author Sonia Anand, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University, commented:
“We observed that the effect of a high-risk genotype can be mitigated by consuming a diet high in fruits and vegetables.”
When clients tell me they’re confused by all the contradictory information out there about healthful eating, I point out to them that this confusion only exists in the popular media. Personal trainers, mass-market diet books and self-appointed weight loss gurus tell people all sorts of unscientific claptrap about diet.
The message coming out of the scientific literature is extremely consistent and crystal-clear – good health is heavily dependent on a very high intake of fruits and vegetables. I tell all my clients to centre every meal on fruit and/or vegies. Treat these wholesome, attractive, tasty foods as the main dish – not the garnish!
Knowing what you put in your mouth can erase the effects of any ‘bad genes’ you carry is truly empowering!