This year’s National Nutrition Month theme is “Put Your Best Fork Forward,” which is the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’s way to remind us that each bite counts. Food, after all, is more than fuel—it is information. The bioactive substances of food—along with physical activity, toxins, and stress—can modify our “gene expression,” that is, how our bodies function. While food cannot change our genetic predispositions (such as, for instance, to heart disease), it can affect whether or not we actually develop heart disease.
Turn On, Turn Off
Foods and its bioactive substances “turn on” (upregulate, in scientific terms) certain genes while others “turn off” (downregulate) genes. Take tumor necrosis factor alpha, for example, or TNF-alpha for short. It is often a main culprit behind inflammation, which is at the root of many degenerative diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type-II diabetes. Inflammation is also often a factor for those struggling with weight management; some people are unable to successfully, sustainably lose weight until their inflammation is under control.
Luckily, TNF-alpha can be downregulated by several different food sources. Eating a goodly amount of cruciferous vegetables—arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale—can combat this effect, since these crunchy green veggies contain high amounts of sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates, which aid in detoxification. Indeed, consuming one and a half cups a day amount of cruciferous vegetables can significantly reduce TNF-alpha.1,2 TNF-alpha can also be downregulated by antioxidant rich foods, like green tea and richly colored vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids.3
The Good News
Understanding the interplay between food and genes means that achieving good health is easier than you might think. In as little as three months, we can “reprogram” our genetic expression and experience an entirely new state of health.4 Here are four tips to get you started.
- Cut out processed foods. If a product’s ingredients list is long and filled with things you can’t pronounce, skip it and opt for whole foods in their natural form.
- Cook more at home. This is the number one thing you can do to improve your health and that of your family’s. This can be a great opportunity to involve the whole family. Have everyone participate in meal planning by finding a new recipe or modifying a favorite. Experimenting with new vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains can be fun too. Need ideas? Download our free Kids in the Kitchen ebook.
- Five-a-Day! Consuming a variety of five fruits and vegetables a day will do more than keep the doctor away. Fruits and veggies are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that maintain optimal cell function and gene regulation. Bonus: they’re all low-calorie, which makes them a particularly good go-to food if you’re watching your weight.
- Move More. The benefits of exercise extend beyond your waistline. Exercise produces feel-good endorphins; once you get into the habit of exercising, it will become more addictive (or at least easier to motivate yourself to keep it up). Exercise can help reduce stress and the risk of certain disease, like osteoporosis, diabetes, and high blood pressure. While traditional exercise such as running and weight lifting are unequivocally good for the body, so is dancing, yoga, walking, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and gardening.
- Integrative Care: A Pathway to a Healthier Nation Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions 2009