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Nutrition And Gene Expression

by Leanne J. Sotir, PhD, RNCP

Nutrition And Gene ExpressionSince the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, much has been discovered about the topic of epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of hidden influences or changes in gene activity without changing the primary DNA sequence. Changes in the epigenome (cellular material of the gene) can be triggered during pre-natal life by a variety of environmental factors affecting the mother (nutrition, stress, xenobiotics, nursing behavior) and also, to a minor extent the father (Scarino, 2008). When the epigenome of monozygotic twins were analyzed, the findings revealed that as the twins grew older and lived different lifestyles, changes to the epigenome were different for both twins, even though they had the same DNA sequence.  When scientists studied different sets of twins, the results revealed the twins that lived apart the longest showed the greatest differences in their epigenome. This research supports a strong correlation between the environment and how it can affect the human genome. The primary way in which genes are blocked or prevented from being expressed is through a process called methylation. Methylation is the biological transfer of a methyl group (a carbon atom with three hydrogens attached to it), much like the passing of a baton from one runner to another in a relay race (Bland, 1999). These hidden influences in our genes are the on-off switches that control the expression of each gene and how they work. The discovery of DNA methylation has lead researchers to explore and try to understand further how this process works at the gene level. This could lead to the prevention of many devastating diseases, by giving people the opportunity to make changes to their diet and lifestyle.

Most people believe that if they inherit a certain gene for a particular disease such as cancer, that they are destined to get it. The discovery of epigenetics has disputed this theory. This new knowledge that our genes have an on/off switch gives many people the ability to take charge of their own health as well as the health of future generations. Although we do inherit genes from our parents and grandparents that can make us more susceptible to some diseases, we also can change the expression of these genes with the choices we make. The epigenome can be altered at any stage of a person’s life by incorporating healthy lifestyle and nutritional choices.

Dr. Weston Price, a dentist and a pioneer in nutritional research, has proven the connection between nutrition, disease and gene expression. In the 1930’s he searched the world, researching indigenous diets of the primitive people. His research has led him to theorize that if we eat our natural ethnic diet of unprocessed foods, our mental, physical, and dental health will be optimal. He discovered, as soon as people strayed from their indigenous diet, disease became prevalent. The parents’ diet was also shown to affect the health of their children. When parents adopted a processed food diet, the children showed signs of dental caries, structural abnormalities, and had immune systems problems.  He also found evidence indicating that when the parents adopted a more modernized diet of processed foods, that it affected the germ plasma, causing defect in the fetal structure as well as the brain. The data indicates that instead of dealing entirely with hereditary factors, we are dealing in part with distortion due to inhibitions of a normal hereditary process (Price, 1999).

A breakthrough in research came when Drs. Joseph and Mary Goldberger discovered that the disease Pellagra was not genetic or caused by an infection but was caused by a nutritional deficiency of B3 (Niacin). Scientists are now aware that many diseases that were considered to be related to bad genes are actually caused from nutritional deficiencies. Vitamins and minerals are key players in modulating gene expression.  Some of the key vitamins that play a role are B6 (pyridoxine), B12 (cobalamin), and folic acid.  They do this by masking certain parts of the genes that should not be expressed.  The mineral zinc helps by regulating how the genetic message is translated into protein synthesis in the cell. Over the years, altered gene expression signals a message to your body, telling it how to perform (Bland, 1999).  Making sure your diet contains the appropriate vitamins and minerals is important in maintaining health by making sure you genes are regulated.  Along with these vitamins and minerals, another important nutrient is found in plants called phytochemicals, also known as phytonutrients or antioxidants. These plant-derived nutrients can modify gene expression when consumed in the diet. These nutrients are found in green leafy and root vegetables, fruits, raw nuts and seeds. They contain antioxidants such as phenolic compounds, bioflavonoids, saponins, terpenoids, and certain pigments that are known to prevent cancer. Researchers have identified a host of active substances in these anticancer plant foods that modify gene expression and help protect against diseases (Bland, 1999).

Research shows the importance of nutrition, beginning from the germ plasma (of both parents) to pre-natal through all the years of our lives. Although certain genes are inherited from one generation to the next, this does not mean we are destined to succumb to the disease that may be associated with that particular gene. With this new wealth of knowledge regarding epigenetics, many changes are expected to occur in the future of medicine. Nutritional science is embracing the opportunity to increase research on the gene-diet interaction. This new era of nutrition recognizes the complex relation between the health of the individual, its genome, and the life-long dietary exposure, and has lead to the realization that nutrition is essentially a gene-environment interaction science (Williams, C.M., et al, 2008). Future generations will be able to take their genetic information that shows the susceptibility to certain diseases or conditions and make nutritional interventions and other lifestyle changes to prevent disease from occurring.


Bland, J. S. (1999). Genetic Nutritioneering. Illinois: Keats, a division of NTC Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc.

Price, A. P. (2008). Nutrition and physical degeneration.California: Price-Pottenger

Nutrition foundation, Inc.

Scarino, M. L. (2008). A sideways glance. Do you remember your grandmother’s food? How epigenetic changes transmit consequences of nutritional exposure from one generation to the next. Genes and Nutrition. 3 (1), 1-3.

Wade, N., (2005, July5). Explaining differences in twins. The New York Times on the Web. Retrieved February 27, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/05/health/05gene.html?_r=1

Williams, C.M., Ordovas, J.M., Lairon, D., Hesketh, J., Lietz, G., Gibney, M., et al, (2008). The challenge for molecular nutrition research 1: linking genotype to healthy nutrition. Genes and Nutrition, 3 (2), 41-49.


Holt, S., Paterson, N. (Producers). (2006). Ghost in your genes (DVD). Boston: WGBH.