About 200 years ago, French attorney and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Today, if we look at the Standard American Diet (SAD), his assertion remains true. The foods we eat say a lot about who we are — for better or for worse. So it should come as no surprise that SAD is the acronym commonly used to describe our diet because it is indeed sad. Our food is largely processed and refined. By the time foods reach our grocery stores, they are loaded with unhealthy additives and preservatives that have replaced healthful nutrients.
But all is not lost because the influence of foods on our health is a two-way street. And the road that leads to wellness and longevity is a choice that you can make for yourself and your family. Through the science of nutritional genomics we are learning that the foods we eat can be our best medicine.
In my latest book, The Gene Therapy Plan: Taking Control of Your Genetic Destiny with Diet and Lifestyle, which will be published by Viking next month, I explain the science behind how food can be used to prevent disease at the level of our DNA. In short, nutrients in the foods we eat change our genes in ways that favor either health or disease. To launch your genechanging lifestyle, you need to incorporate these amazing foods in your diet.
Before processing, whole grain structure is all the same. Whole grains contain an outer (bran), middle (endosperm), and inner (germ) layer. The bran layer is loaded with B vitamins as well as fiber, proteins, and minerals. The endosperm is carbohydrate-rich and consists of proteins. The germ layer consists of unsaturated fats and proteins.
When you’re out shopping for grains make sure that the first ingredient includes the word “whole.” Why? Well, some grain-based foods like cereals claim to be made up of whole grains, but the grains are processed. Processed grains often only retain the carb-rich endosperm and contain little nutritive value. Choose raw grains like wheat kernels, pumpkinseeds, and ground flaxseed because they are packed with enzymes, lignans, and flavonoids. Add plenty of barley to your diet, too; it’s a grain-based food that’s rich in enzymes, rutin, and B vitamins — all of which have beneficial effects on gene expression. I frequently add barley to my ecogenetic smoothies.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a member of the mint family Lamiaceae. It can grow up to 5 feet tall. If handled well, it remains in the same place for up to 30 years and is found in warmer climates close to the sea. Rosemary is a powerful activator of detoxification enzymes and protects against breast tumors. In an animal study, rats that were fed rosemary before ingesting breast cancer-inducing toxins developed 75% fewer breast tumors than rats that weren’t pretreated with rosemary. Similar to green tea, rosemary has also been found to increase the concentration of chemotherapeutic drugs in breast cancer cells. Carnosol, the active ingredient in rosemary, contains all of the bioactive pharmacologic benefits.
Garlic is known to fight infections. In Russia, garlic is compared to penicillin. A member of the Allium genus, garlic contains extracts that have been used to treat antimicrobial and antifungal infections. During World War I and II, medics would use garlic to disinfect war wounds. Data has shown that garlic also has anticancer effects. Studies using garlic tablets in vitro also show an increase in natural killer (NK) cell activity; NKs kill target cells like cancer cells. A meta-analysis found that people who consumed fresh or cooked garlic daily experienced a reduction in their likelihood to develop both colorectal (40%) and gastric (47%) cancers.
A study examined the effects of aloe vera and sucralfate on gastric ulcer healing in rats. Aloe vera treatment improved gastric ulcer healing because it reduced proinflammatory mediators and increased anti-inflammatory molecules.
Magnesium, an essential mineral and cofactor, is necessary for carbohydrate metabolism. Consuming it lowers both blood glucose and diabetes risk. In a German study, researchers examined 52 overweight participants who had normal magnesium levels and were insulin-resistant non-diabetics; the researchers reported improvements in insulin sensitivity, blood glucose control, and even blood pressure only in those who were given magnesium supplements. In a meta-analysis of seven large studies, researchers found that participants who increased their intake of magnesium by 100 mg experienced a 15% drop in developing diabetes. In a study evaluating Chinese women, data show that calcium and magnesium protect against the development of type 2 diabetes. High potassium levels are also associated with a lower risk for the development of diabetes; people with the lowest potassium levels experienced an increased risk of developing diabetes that was 64% greater than in those who had elevated levels of potassium.
Selenium is another mineral that modulates blood glucose levels in the body. Researchers examined the effects of selenium among healthy participants in preventing the development of dysglycemia, which is a group of blood sugar disorders such as impaired glucose intolerance, prediabetes, and diabetes. Selenium was reported to lower the risk of abnormal blood glucose levels.
Vitamin K is a fat-soluble, essential vitamin. There are two types: K1 and K2. And both have been shown to lower the risk of diabetes in men and women.
Vitamin D also plays an important role in glucose control; it’s been shown to improve insulin secretion and insulin sensitivity among those with the highest risk of developing diabetes. Vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to myriad health complications such as osteoporosis, fractures, and cardiovascular disease. So it should come as no surprise that supplementing vitamin D in your diet will help to improve health and reduce the risk of developing diabetes.
Further support for vitamin D supplementation in lowering the risk of diabetes was found in a collaborative study that was conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois, University of Mississippi, and the Veterans Administration Medical Center. The study demonstrated that an inverse relationship exists between vitamin D and the marker for prolonged elevated blood sugar called hemoglobin A1c. In individuals with low levels of vitamin D, there was an increase in hemoglobin A1c. High dietary supplementation with vitamin D is also correlated with decreased levels of hemoglobin A1c.
Studies also show that there is a bidirectional association between diabetes and depression. As a result, researchers are testing the effects of vitamin D supplementation on insulin resistance and mood. Increasing vitamin D levels have also been shown to lower the risk of prediabetes and prehypertension.
EGCG, the phytochemical found in green tea, helps to preserve platelets, skin, and cartilage. In one study, researchers treated blood platelets with EGCG and reported that the green tea compound improved the shelf life of blood platelets and inhibited platelet cell death.
In an animal study, rat skin treated with EGCG experienced no damaging effects, which may have positive implications for skin graft retention in transplantation. Furthermore, a study using rabbit cartilage treated with EGCG showed no damage and high retention rates after grafting. This nutritive compound shows the effects of gene activation that promotes the preservation of healthy tissue.
Telomeres, noncoding DNA sequences that cap chromosomal tips, have long been known to be associated with aging. Telomeres also shorten with age. One study showed that men who drink tea regularly (3 or more cups daily) experience an increase of about five years in their lifespan due to increased length in telomeres when compared to men who drink a quarter cup or less of tea a day.