You get half your genes from your mother and the other half from your father, and those are the genes you’re stuck with, right? Not quite. According to epigenetics, outside factors (like what we eat) have a ton of influence over the way your genes actually behave. And while most of us know that eating well can make us feel great, we might not realize just how far the power of nutrition actually reaches, especially when it comes to our DNA. In other words, the genes you’re born with aren’t the end of your story. In a way, they’re just the beginning.
IT’S TIME TO MEET YOUR THIRD PARENT
We’ve all seen how important it is for moms and dads to watch over their growing children and to stay connected as they mature and what a vital role that can play in the child’s development. Caring parents even continue to advise their children after they leave the nest, offering wisdom that can help shape career choices, child-rearing decisions, and more.
In my 20-plus years of clinical experience I’ve witnessed how powerfully maintaining an ongoing relationship with our elders can help to ensure the mental and physical well-being of the younger generation.
And it’s every bit as important to stay in touch with your third parent—not for financial or social counsel—but for epigenetic advice. This is the information your genes have come to expect and now require in order for you to grow up strong, give birth to the healthiest possible children, and enjoy a long, active life. In writing Deep Nutrition, I analyzed the strategies that all traditional cultures shared in common that enabled them to provide their genes with the epigenetic wisdom that our genes need to function at their very best.
Here are seven nutritional strategies you can use to boost the signal between your genes and Mother Nature.
1. Equate REAL flavor with nutrition.
Doritos and other snack foods have lots of flavor, which, in part, is why they’re so addictive. But artificial flavors and empty calories are like prank calls to your body’s cells. The intense taste of junk food—which human beings naturally seek out—is accompanied by almost zero nutrition. The intense flavors of a perfectly grilled steak, in contrast, come from the fact that it’s a good source of all 11 essential amino acids that your body needs to build muscle; minerals like iron, phosphorus, zinc, and selenium; multiple B vitamins and (when from a pasture raised animal); bone-building vitamin K2; and brain-building essential omega-3 fats. The more real flavor you can get with each bite, the better every cell in your body will function.
2. Reduce your sugar intake by half.
A lot of athletes balk at the idea of skipping the candy bar or the high-sugar soda because they grew up thinking of food as fuel. And what better fuel than what your cells run on—sugar! The problem is, our cells are not, in reality, engineered to use sugar as a preferential fuel source. They’re meant to run primarily on fat. When you eat too much sugar—refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, certainly, but also sugar from natural fruit juices—you’re essentially telling your cells to double-down on specializing in the creation of sugar-burning enzymes that make your cells addicted to sugar. And this added to the fact that high blood sugar levels disrupt hormonal balance, means that sugar creates nothing but static in the conversation between your genes and the planet.
3. Dump the vegetable oil.
The single ingredient that makes junk food junk food has to be vegetable oil—the most commonly used forms include soy, canola, and palm oil. These seed oils (called RBD, or refined, bleached, and deodorized oils) are loaded with toxic breakdown products of the once-healthy essential omega-3 and omega-6 fats and deliver compounds like reactive carbonyls and even alkylating agents to your cells. The biochemical messages delivered are kind of like mumbled words your body can’t quite understand. Mangled molecules confuse the body much in the same way that trans fats do, misdirecting cellular enzymes and directly damaging DNA. And you should know that, if you haven’t already made the conscious choice to avoid these highly processed, toxic fats and replace them with traditional fats (like avocado, olive, and coconut), you’re likely taking in a full third of your daily caloric intake in the form of these nasty seed oils.
4. Eat homemade bone stock.
Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers was one of the first athletes I’ve worked with to get fully on board with the manifold benefits of bone stock. Since then, stock’s stock has gone way up, with stock restaurants popping up everywhere from LA to Chicago to Manhattan. So what makes this traditional food preparation so essential for athletes? It’s simple, really. In the same way that real food protein sources help to build and maintain healthy muscle, bone stock helps build the tissues that connect your muscle to your bone—called connective tissues. Sure, you can take a glucosamine or chondroitin pill, but it doesn’t convey all the biochemical information in stock. Plus, homemade chicken stock—using the bones you save from cooked chicken—takes only two hours to make and tastes amazing!
5. Eat lots of fresh, raw foods.
Vegans have long argued that we don’t eat nearly enough raw vegetables, and they’re right. Part of this has to do with the fact that most of the vegetables people have access to are, frankly, uninspiring. Bred for their ability to survive shipping and storage rather than for flavor, grown in sterile soil and picked unripe, the tomatoes in the store taste nothing like the tomatoes grandma used to grow in her garden. So if you’re lucky enough to enjoy access to fresh, flavorful veggies, take full advantage and make a big salad a daily event.
6. Eat fermented and sprouted foods.
Fermented foods include yogurt and traditionally brined dill pickles and are special because of the good bacteria they provide our gut, which supports a healthy microbiome. Sprouted foods are partially germinated, not full-on sprouts, and are good for us because they provide prebiotics, which act like food for the healthy bacteria in our gut. You can make your own fermented foods or you can buy them in health food stores. You’ll find them in the refrigerated section, and real fermented veggies like cucumber pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchee won’t list vinegar as an ingredient. Sprouting allows beans and seeds to convert the empty starch stored inside them into vitamins, fiber, and other nutrients. It also means that they take less time to cook!
7. Get nasty!
I’m talking about organ meats, which celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain calls “The Nasty Bits.” If you’ve heard the phrase “eat a rainbow of vegetables” it’s because each different color vegetable packs a different blend of nutrients. The same goes for organ meats, which each have their own special blend of essential vitamins and minerals that you won’t get if you only eat the muscle meat. The fact is, every traditional diet around the globe embraces these superfoods as part of daily fare—whether in the form of head cheese or pate or good old-fashioned liver and onions. The fanciest restaurants in the United States often specialize in making these nasty bits taste divine. If that’s not in your budget, then simply visit an old-school deli or buy yourself some liverwurst from the local supermarket and give it a try. If the first thought you have about organ meats is “yuck,” you’re not alone. But a schmear of pate or liverwurst with a little fermented horseradish sauce can, surprisingly, grow on you. The point is to expand your culinary experience so that you, and your genes, can take full advantage of everything Mother Nature has to offer.
Adopting these strategies helps you to reconnect with your third parent. And don’t worry, even if it’s been a long time since you last communicated, she’ll offer you her epigenetic wisdom with no guilt trip attached!
Catherine Shanahan, M.D. is a board certified family physician. She trained in biochemistry and genetics at Cornell University before attending Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. She practiced medicine in Hawaii for a decade, where she studied enthnobotany, as well as the culinary habits of her healthiest patients.
She currently runs a metabolic health clinic in Denver, Colorado and serves as the Director of the Los Angeles Lakers PRO Nutrition Program. She is also author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food.