Monday, September 16, 2019

Book Nook: You Are What Your Grandparents Ate

We might feel good about healthy choices we make, because we know we're potentially improving our own longevity, health, and quality of life. But did you know that there's some research that shows that your choices might impact your children and your grandchildren? It's more than just setting a healthy example, and even more than prenatal nutrition.

In her groundbreaking book You Are What Your Grandparents Ate: What You Need to Know about Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics & the Origins of Chronic Disease, author Judith Finlayson provides an up-to-date overview of the science linking your experience as a fetus with the development of chronic illness later in life—and the possibility that you will pass it on to future generations.

“Thanks to the relatively new science of epigenetics,” says Finlayson, “we can now link our lifelong experiences to changes in gene expression that reset body processes. Epigenetics is, broadly speaking, the connection between our genes and the environment. Everything we eat, the air we breathe and the lifestyle choices we make can influence how our genes express themselves—and depending on when they occur, these impacts can have a powerful effect on our health over the long term. Moreover, research suggests that some of these changes may be passed on to our descendants.”

YOU ARE WHAT YOUR GRANDPARENTS ATE is a wide-ranging work that covers fascinating research being conducted around the world, from Oregon to Helsinki and from Amsterdam to Sydney, Australia.

I had a chance to interview the author to learn more.

Why did you decide to write this book?
I have a long-standing interest in food as medicine, which I formalized in 2006 when I published The Healthy Slow Cooker, a cookbook that used the recipes as focal points for sharing in-depth information about nutrition. As time passed, that interest deepened. A number of years ago I was introduced to the work of Dr. David Barker, a British epidemiologist. His research linked poor nutrition in the womb with the development of a wide range of chronic diseases later in life. I found it compelling, to say the least. But when I started talking to people like doctors and nutritionists, (who I assumed would be well aware of Dr. Barker’s work), I discovered that no one knew about it. That got me fired up. I wanted everyone to know that susceptibility to disease is passed on from previous generations. It involves much more than lifestyle and the genes your parents passed on to you. You Are What Your Grandparents Ate is the result of that passion.

What can people do if they know that their grandparents' diet may have adversely affected their health?
There is no “quick fix”. But the good news is that the research is showing that even small adjustments in lifestyle can spark systemic changes that can improve your health and well-being and that of your descendants. For instance, thanks to the science of epigenetics, we are gaining insight into why exercise is good for you: it improves the expression of many different genes. These changes have been shown to produce positive results fairly quickly --- in about 8 weeks.

Translating this to “real” life, we know that being overweight is a significant risk factor for a wide range of diseases, We also know that certain people are programmed to be overweight before birth for various reasons, including environmental factors like poor maternal nutrition or grandfathers who started smoking at an early age. These impacts prompt epigenetic changes that disturb the systems regulating energy balance throughout the body. Thanks to a phenomenon known as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, we now know that some of these changes can be passed on through at least two generations.

Not all of these “at risk” children become overweight or obese --- only a statistically significant number of them. (Even identical twins who have exactly the same genomes have different outcomes.) These disparities can be linked with differences in gene expression, which can be modified by lifestyle. Consider Type 2 diabetes, a disease that is closely connected with being overweight: About 90 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese. We now know that people who are overweight or obese have epigenetic patterns that differ from people of normal weight. Evidence also indicates s that lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, influence gene expression. Studies now show that if you haven’t yet developed type 2 diabetes, losing just a small amount of weight and incorporating exercise into your daily routine can decrease your risk of developing the disease, likely because these positive lifestyle changes improve gene expression.

Just as risk factors for disease can be passed on through the generations, laboratory studies are showing that negative programming can be reversed by, for example, improving the nutrition of pregnant mothers or creating more nurturing environments for offspring. Research is now showing that these positive changes can be inherited by future generations.

How can people encourage their children to continue making good choices for future generations?
The first point I would make is avoid consuming ultra-processed foods. This includes soda and sugar-sweetened beverages. A growing body of evidence links the consumption of processed foods with an increased risk of developing chronic illnesses, especially obesity. They have also been shown to increase the likelihood of premature death.

Three generations of North Americans have been consuming a diet high in processed foods and, as a result, many are suffering from high-calorie malnutrition. This is showing up in the runaway rates of chronic illness. These effects are also being passed on to offspring. The quality of a mother’s eggs and a father’s sperm is negatively affected by poor diets, among other things. These effects meld in the fertilized egg. Some are lost and some are preserved throughout the process of fetal development. But basically, some of this “epigenetic programming” is passed on, setting the stage for chronic illness later in life.

In simple terms, consuming a diet built around nutritious whole foods and avoiding processed foods has wide-ranging benefits in preventing chronic illness. Exercise has also been shown to have similar positive effects. Without a doubt, that’s the best strategy for promoting health and resisting disease--- not only for now, but for generations to come.

Judith Finlayson is a bestselling author who has written books on a variety of subjects from personal well-being and women’s history to food and nutrition. A former national newspaper columnist for The Globe and Mail, a magazine journalist and a board member of various organizations focusing on legal, medical and women’s issues, she is also the author of over a dozen cookbooks. Judith lives in Toronto.

Courtesy of You Are What Your Grandparents Ate by Judith Finlayson © 2019 Reprinted with permission. Available where books are sold.

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