Can Genetics Impact Diet and Health?

how does genetics affect nutrition

You don’t have to be a scientist to understand just how important our genes, our DNA, and the genetics passed down to us from our ancestors are when it comes to making us who we are.

We know at a basic level that we inherent genetics from our parents (and that they inherit them from their parents, on down the line all the way back to the earliest humans in history) and that our 100% individualized DNA is a genetic hodgepodge of this process.

We also understand that are genetics dictated so much about our lives and ourselves in a physical sense that it’s impossible to separate “us” from our DNA. Our eye color, our height, predispositions towards allergies and diseases, and so much more are all controlled by those individual strands of DNA and our genetics.

But if you asked most people “how does genetics affect nutrition” – and how does our DNA impact what our bodies do with everything that we eat and consume – the odds are pretty good most people wouldn’t have any idea of what you were talking about. 

The Human Genome Project (and international collaboration between research groups located around the world) has been working for more than a decade to map out every single individual gene in the human body.

Already they have discovered 50,000 individual variances and differences in DNA code that are linked directly to how our bodies function. They’ve also uncovered how the interaction between our environment, our lifestyle decisions, and the nutrients that we consume interplay with our genetics – and how our diet is one of the most important aspects of our lives that we have total control over that can help us to express or repress parts of our DNA.

difference between nutrigenomics and epigenetics

This groundbreaking new science has led to the creation of the field of nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics. Scientists are now looking at how we may be able to better express the good parts of our DNA with smarter dietary choices, but also how we may be able to “cover” and repress DNA issues that can lead to disease and illness with dietary choices, too.

We are entering a very exciting new era in the world of science, nutrition, and genetics thanks to this research – and the discoveries we’ve already made are having real impacts today.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the role nutrition plays when it comes to unlocking the true potential of your genetics.

How Does Genetics Impact Diet?

If you have ever found yourself continuing to indulge in foods – certain foods – that you know consciously aren’t the best for you, but just can’t quite seem to give them up for good, the odds are that you’ve already experienced firsthand how the gene impact factor with nutrition comes into play.

According to researchers operating out of Madrid working in partnership with the American Society for Nutrition this behavior is directly linked to specific gene variations in our DNA that respond to a very specific biochemical stimulus caused when these nutrients are digested and then hit our bloodstream.

Studying more than 800 people over a three-year block of time, these researchers were able to see a direct link between similar underlying genetic details and the kinds of foods that each individual self-reported they were most interested in.

As an example, individuals that were found to have a specific form of an oxytocin receptor gene were most likely to be interested in chocolate than others – but that they were also most likely to have a larger waist size as well.

Another example discovered during this research pointed to a link between obesity associated genetics and a disinterest in vegetables and fiber. Genes have been found to be connected to higher sodium and fat intake as well, and this is just barely beginning to scrape the surface of what researchers are uncovering when it comes to the intertwining of genetics and nutrition today.

What is obvious, though, is that there is very much a clear intermingling relationship between genes and diet that wasn’t fully understand previously.

Most people don’t need to do a lot of research to understand that they have cravings for foods that other people in their lives may not. Few people understand that it’s there DNA that’s actually driving them to have these kinds of cravings for these kinds of foods in specific.

Nutrigenomics and Nutrigenetics- What Are They and How Do They Impact Weight

Interestingly enough, these same Spanish and American researchers believe that one of the biggest reasons people have such a tough time losing weight isn’t so much an issue coming down to overall desire or willpower but instead revolves around gene expression “craving” foods that aren’t the best for our health and wellness.

Sure, discipline, motivation, and an understanding of healthy eating definitely contribute to the success rate of whether or not individuals are going to be able to lose weight when they want to.

At the same time, however, losing weight – particularly a significant amount of weight – or making the shift towards a permanently healthier dietary lifestyle becomes a real uphill battle when you’re not only fighting against habits and behavioral decisions you’ve made for years but also your own gene expression.

If you’re DNA and specific genetic markers predispose you towards craving chocolate you’re going to need a whole lot more willpower, a whole lot more discipline, and a whole lot more energy to push back and overcome those cravings than someone with DNA and genetic markers that aren’t all that crazy about chocolate to begin with.

Of course, you also have to understand the fact that obesity is such a super complex and multipronged condition with no real simple solutions.

Researchers do believe that the genetic component that leads to obesity makes up anywhere between 30% and 70% of this condition manifesting itself – but that means that there are a lot of personal decisions, behaviors, and habits that are leading to this condition as well.

Worse, dozens and dozens of genetic variants have already been linked directly to obesity, lower metabolism, and other issues (including digestive and hormonal issues) that can exacerbate lifestyle decisions leading to obesity as well.

In 2012, researchers at Harvard discovered that variations in the FTO genetic marker were able to reasonably predict that people with this genetic variant were likely to consume high-protein diets without having the kind of weight loss results they were expecting.

nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics

In 2018, however, researchers at Stanford found no direct association between weight loss and the FTO genetic marker variations Harvard uncovered. That only served to muddy the water of the link between genetics and nutrition, field that’s really only just now starting to find its way and establish its foundation.

This is what has led to the establishment of the nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics areas of study to understand the same interplay between nutrition and DNA. It’s also led to a major division between the fields of nutrigenomics and epigenetics.

The biggest difference between nutrigenomics and epigenetics is that epigenetic research focuses almost not so much on how biological mechanisms (or nutrients) trigger gene expression or gene repression, but on how this genetic behavior is read and interpreted by cells going forward.

Nutrigenetics, on the other hand, specifically seeks to understand how the body responds to food from a genetic standpoint, particularly on a single gene and single food source relationship.

The research between these two different fields are certainly intertwined with one another and big breakthroughs in one field contribute to bigger breakthroughs in the other, but epigenetics takes a more holistic overview when it comes to gene expression with nutrigenetics really drilling down to figure out how specific kinds of food because specific genetic responses.

The Relationship Between Genes and Diet

People interested in how does genetics affect nutrition (and vice versa) are really starting to explore a new approach to eating that some have dubbed the “DNA Diet”.

The whole idea behind the DNA Diet is that you have your genetics analyzed (pretty comprehensively, at that) to better understand how your body responds at the biochemical level to specific food types and food sources – and then you build a diet around triggering the right kind of genetic expression that helps you lead a happier, healthier, and longer life.

A number of companies in the United States (as well as several in Europe and Asia) have started to conduct this kind of research, pumping millions and millions of dollars into this field under the assumption that it is going to be the “next big thing” in the world of nutrition.

Supporters of the DNA Diet approach not only believe that it could be possible to trigger specific behavioral changes in your life with this kind of eating approach, but that you could also armor yourself against disease, injury, and illness and unlock the highest expression of your genetic potential.

gene impact factor

Performance focused athletes are some of the earliest adopters of this new way of looking at nutrition.

They want to understand how can heredity positively affect your health and wellness, but they also want to understand whether or not there is a competitive advantage to be gained by eating specific foods that could trigger performance enhancements because of their own specific and 100% unique DNA.

One of the reasons this specific industry is starting to grow so large is that it is next to impossible to regulate the world of food the way that supplements and medications can be.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has strict overseer responsibilities over the supplement and medication world, but it would be almost impossible to imagine those same kinds of regulations being imposed on foods – particularly when one food may trigger positive genetic responses that lead to performance enhancements in a single individual but not another because of the differences in their DNA.

Another interesting shift we’re starting to see as we begin to understand better the relationship between DNA, genetics, and nutrition is that the old idea of a “healthy, well-balanced universal diet” is starting to kind of wither and die on the vine.

Researchers are now starting to understand that it may not be such a good idea to recommend everyone eat the same way as everyone else.

This seems pretty obvious on the surface when it’s laid out like this. After all, we know there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to medicine. But only now are we starting to look at food as medicine, food as a performance-enhancing components, and food as a trigger that can help or heal your body directly due to your DNA.

More research is obviously necessary to fully unlock the genetic potential certain foods may be able to trigger, but it isn’t at all that unreasonable to assume that in the future (possibly in the near future) we may be able to “eat ourselves healthy” in a way that we never previously understood – all on an individual, completely custom basis through understanding our unique DNA.

What 'Healthy Genes' Look Like

Each of our individual chromosomes contain the “recipe” for life, found distinctly in nearly every single cell in our body.

Made up entirely from strands of our 100% unique DNA, the individual segments of our DNA – which we call genes – are basically the building blocks and fundamental ingredients that comprise these chromosomes. Each gene adds a very specific protein to the mix, and from there each of these proteins work to dictate some specific aspect of our body and our lives.

The human body has 46 individual chromosomes (getting 23 chromosomes from one parent and 23 chromosomes from the other), with each and every one of these chromosomes dictating an almost unlimited amount of features and factors that play a role not only in who we are, what we look like, but also how we think, how we live, and how the foods we eat impacts our health and happiness.

Healthy genes work to carry complete messages and instructions to individual cells throughout our body, telling them how to respond to specific stimuli across our entire cellular network. Different stimuli create different responses due to the genetic makeup of our bodies, and when our genes are healthy they are able to quickly disseminate this information exactly as our DNA outlined.

On the flip side of things, it’s possible for our genes to become mutated over time. Sometimes these mutations are in oculus and have no real transformative impact on our genetics or the messages that our genes send out, but sometimes these mutations can lead to illness and disease.

Researchers are still trying to fully wrap their head around how our genes mutate over time, but the common understanding today is that a variety of different factors – including genetic predispositions to mutations passed down to us from our ancestors, lifestyle choices, and the environment we live in a day-to-day basis – all have a huge impact on the health and vitality of our genes.

This is why medical professionals ask about your family history for specific medical conditions. This genetic code has been passed down from your earliest ancestors, and while you aren’t guaranteed to have to contend with the same diseases or disorders others in your family may have had to contend with your risk factors increase because this code has been transferred through your genetics, too.