Epigenetics – the Meeting Point between Genetics and Nutrition
Our guest for the week is Dr. Lucia Aronica, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford Cancer Center and an expert on epigenetic medicine. Her main focus revolves around genomics of nutrition, that is, the correlation between diet and the changes in epigenetic landscape. Holding a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology, Dr. Aronica has spent the last decade researching the influence lifestyle has on our genomes. Her endeavors landed her not just a few recognitions, Marie Curie Global Fellowship Award being one of them.
In this interview, she shares her thoughts on food, diet, as well as sheds some light on the role epigenetics plays in weight loss.
Not All Food Should be Counted as Such
Coming from Italy, pasta and bread were an inseparable part of Dr. Aronica’s early life. But Mediterranean diet, hailed as it is, accounts for much more that the iconic, yet not so healthy duo. This diet holds precedence over typical ‘western’ diets mainly because of the olive oil, which pitted against omega 3 seed oils, strikes a dashing victory in terms of weight and triglycerides loss. The concept of food is also differently conceived in the Mediterranean diet. The quick fixes are not counted as food in Italy, nor should anywhere else: one has to find the time for some cooking.
Nature and Nurture Working Together
The single best way to attain nutritional health is to strike a steady and sustainable balance. Genetics does play a role and, to an extent, predestine the type of diet a person needs. But, it would be false to assume that our lifestyles do not play their role, for it is they that influence the epigenetic image in our cells. The combination of genetics and lifestyle make each of us different and nutritionally unique. Still, there are a few universals, one of which marks a respective correlation between the decrease in carbohydrates and the decrease of triglycerides. The latter in turn has an effect on cardiovascular risks and the amount of bad cholesterol that strikes the arteries. Lowering the carbs, therefore, plays the role in reducing the risk of atherosclerosis.
The Stanford Studies
Dr. Aronica is currently playing a role in one of the largest studies concerning weight loss. It is a follow-up to an earlier, Stanford A to Z study, where more than 300 women were subjected to four popular diets, (Atkins, Zone, LEARN, and Ornish) measuring their results after one year. At the surprise of many, the very low-carb Atkins diet came out on top in terms of weight loss, cholesterol, and blood pressure. The new study will be bigger, include both men and women, and explore more thorough results like micro-biome and body composition change, as well as the changes in epigenetic landscape.
You should think of your genes as you hardware, the instructions that determine the properties of your cells. In that case, the epigenetic code is the software, the instructions on how to use the hardware.
Epigenetics as a Growing Discipline
Gastric bypass patients yielded significant knowledge regarding the epigenetic research. The different epigenetic image and the weight-loss they experienced after the operation proved that the epigenetic markers are potentially reversible, in this case from ones found in obese to those seen in lean people. These markers may also be transmissible to future generations, but further study is needed to see whether sperm incorporates these epigenetic changes. Epigenetics is a growing branch of medicinal science, today even able to predict the risk of type-2 diabetes.
But what of tomorrow? The future discoveries are imminent, due to the change in approach. Namely, instead of looking at a few genes or a few hundreds of them, epigenetic researchers, Dr. Aronica among them, are bent towards looking at the entire genome. Also, epigenetic research is determined to explore the DNA in its entirety, including the non-coding regions. It is quite a feat, but the outcomes potentially exceed the effort by a margin.