You Really Are What You EatDr. Matthew Edlund, MD, MOH
The food you eat can change your genes—quickly.
Posted February 3, 2012
Food changes gene expression—directly. Eat a bowl of rice and you can turn off genes controlling cholesterol synthesis.
Right out of the pot.
You’ve been eating genetic information—probably all your life.
The data come from China, from Lin Zhang and his group at the University of Nanjing. They started looking for micro RNAs—little pieces of ribonucleic acid that turn on and turn off the messenger RNAs that make our proteins.
Zhang’s group found more than 30 different micro RNAs in blood.
MicroRNAs are small, but were not expected to survive ingestion. That they survived surprised people.
Zhang’s group took microRNAs that affect cholesterol out of blood and put them into mice. They then blocked their effect with drugs.
Cholesterol levels plummeted.
Eating an Organism
There are a lot of chemicals inside animals. The same is true of plants. The majority of antibiotics come from plants. While remaining fixed in the ground plants have to fight off fungi, bacteria, viruses, and rickettsia, set up barriers to being eaten or destroyed by animals, and create all the complicated machinery of life.
So any time we eat a plant or animal we potentially ingest thousands of separate chemicals.
We can get some idea of the complexity of food from one extensively studied plant—tobacco.
Tobacco as Model
Analyses of tobacco plants usually find about 10,000 separate chemicals. One is polonium 210—tobacco plants pick up radioactive fallout long resident in the atmosphere and concentrate it. The end result—when you light up you really light up. That means more lung cancers.
We should expect that “superfoods”—the organically colored foods presumably beloved by the media—to possess similar complexity—and influential chemicals.
Proteins and Carbohydrates
Food is necessary for life. From proteins we get the stuff to make our proteins; from fats, the critical molecules for lining cells and facilitating communication. Carbohydrates are both basic materials and fundamental fuels.
Yet to simplify food into carbohydrates, proteins and fats is to miss most of what they do. It’s like knowing a closed box weights 3,000 pounds and contains iron, copper and other metals, but not knowing if it contains manhole covers, a Ferrari, or a cruise missile. And that’s before you consider what happens when food hits your gut.
Your Gut’s Response to Food
- Your gut has 100 trillion bacteria
- Collectively they control 3.3 to 9 million separate genes—compared to your approximately 27,000
- Give lactobacilli to mice as part of their diet and they are far more resistant to stress and induced depression than those without lactobacilli. Who knows what the other hundreds of other bacteria do—they certainly affect autoimmune disease.
The human response—what you do with food:
- Moving after meals blocks digestion and decreases glucose and insulin peaks
- Eat at night and you’ll have higher glucose and blood fats
- People eat more with friends than when alone—unless they’re watching TV
- Sleep less and you crave more fat and sugar
The Biological Meaning of Food
Food is complicated—and that’s a good thing. Once we understand the many thousands of chemicals inside food and how they interact we should be able to more intelligently treat or prevent illness through intelligent cuisine—as East Asian medicine has tried to do for thousands of years. With greater computer crunching power we’ll begin to understand why some cuisines, with their many interactions and sequences of foods, like the Mediterranean diet, seem to be healthy.
Food Information Content
It’s time to think of food differently, as more than calories and carbs. Food changes us with its procarcinogens and RNA; the drug like effects of its innumerable chemicals; the changes it brings to the human gut ecosystem and its many trillions of different organisms.
It makes more sense to think of food information content. A sweet potato has dozens of different kinds of fat and proteins, but it’s also got carotenoids; antioxidants; RNAs; chemicals that promote or decrease production of liver carcinogens.
In other words, foods are drugs, energy, structural materials, gene changers, weight makers and losers.
They’re also pleasure, culture, fun, and love. That’s the kind of information we can really enjoy.
Dr. Matthew Edlund, M.D., M.O.H., is an internationally recognized expert on rest, sleep, and body clocks. His books include The Body Clock Advantage, Designed to Last, and Psychological Time and Mental Illness. His new book, The Power of Rest, shows that rest is a skill that rebuilds, renews, and rewires mind and body, and can increase productivity, health, and pleasure. For more information, visit his website, TheRestDoctor.com. You can also subscribe to his new Fitcast via the iTunes Store.