Science of Food: Eat for your genes (column) |

Science of Food: Eat for your genes (column)

Foods we eat every day can interact with genes to turn on or off the genetic light switch.
Courtesy Getty Images | Wavebreak Media


What: “Creating an Anticancer Diet” with Dr. Lisa Julian

When: Monday, Oct. 3; 6–9 p.m.

Where: Colorado Mountain College Breckenridge

Cost: $44; Advanced registration required

For more information or to register: Call (970)453-6757 or visit the website @

Until recently, it was thought that your fate was predetermined in your genes. You were born with a certain set of genes (parts of your DNA) that determines how you look and that laid the path for any future diseases, right? While your initial genetic code does play a role, we now know that it is not solely about what genes you have, it’s about the timing of when certain genes are turned on and when they are turned off, similar to a light switch.


When the light switch is in the “on” position, gene expression occurs. Gene expression refers to the process where “information” contained within a gene’s DNA sequence is translated, usually into a protein that has a particular cellular function. This information is the set of instructions on how to build and operate all the different cells making up the body. When the information is lost, damaged or misread, some of the essential cellular processes begin to malfunction. If this type of damage occurs over time or in large enough doses, eventually cancer and other chronic diseases will manifest in the body.

It is well known that environmental toxins can modify your genes, the notorious Agent Orange is an example. Millions of gallons of Agent Orange were dumped on Vietnam during the war and our government even admits that it’s the cause of terminal lung cancer that many veterans have since developed. Agent Orange damages genes and causes cancer, and due to such widespread genetic damage, not unlike the carcinogens found in cigarettes, it happens relatively quickly, causing otherwise healthy people to develop cancer at higher rates and younger ages than ever before.

In the case above, genes are irreversibly damaged beyond repair, however, genes can also be reversibly modified causing temporary changes to the processes governing cellular health and longevity. In the relatively new field called “epigenetics,” researchers study how, when and why genes turn on and off. Circadian rhythms and the time of day affect gene expression, so do environmental factors and everyday lifestyle choices, like exercise and diet. It is now widely accepted that most risk factors for chronic disease are not inherited.


That means the foods we eat everyday are interacting with your genes to turn on or off the genetic light switch. Now being called “nutrigenomics,” researchers look at how specific nutrients alter gene expression. For example, studies have identified a gene called BDNF, involved in the production of new neurons, essential for learning and memory. Another superstar gene called NRF2 has been discovered recently and is under rigorous investigation by scientists. This gene serves the body’s immune system acting as a powerful antioxidant. There are genes that control cell growth and inflammation with implications in cancer and there are “cholesterol genes” modulating the expression of HDL and LDL involved in the development of heart disease. All these genes are being switched on or off and are affected by the foods we eat.

Additional evidence supporting the role of nutrition on gene expression comes from a study led by Dr. Dean Ornish published in 2008 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. He analyzed over 500 genes in a small group of men with prostate cancer undergoing intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention and ”identified significant modulation of biological processes that have critical roles in tumorigenesis, including protein metabolism …” and concluded “intensive nutrition and lifestyle changes may modulate gene expression in the prostate.”


“If you could ask your genes to say what kinds of foods are best for your health, they would have a simple answer: one-third protein, one-third fat and one-third carbohydrates.” That’s what recent genetic research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology shows will limit your risk of most chronic diseases. Although one size does not fit all when it comes to diet, most doctors and experts agree that a diet rich in colorful vegetables and fruits, leafy greens, whole grains, and herbs and spices like turmeric, cinnamon and ginger will serve to benefit your genes, turning on the cancer-fighting genes and turning off the harmful ones that promote premature aging and disease. Lowering stress that creates oxidative damage in the body is equally important in the overall strategy toward living a long and healthy life and we will continue to see the fields of epigenetics and nutrigenomics provide the molecular support for these claims.

As we continue to learn and collect more clinical evidence showing how food affects our genes and how our own individual genetic variation drives our unique response to specific foods, it is my hope and prediction that using “food as medicine” will soon become part of every standard regimen for treating chronic diseases. Isn’t it comforting to know that we are not doomed from inherited genetic flaws? Our genes respond quickly to their environment, including to dietary changes, so begin eating for your genes today.

Dr. Lisa Julian Ph.D. has a passion for organic chemistry the “molecules of life,” and its application to food and health. She’s the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches Science and Nutrition at CU Denver and CMC. She can be reached at (970)401-2071 or For more information about services offered at her studio, visit

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