We’ve all been nagged at by our parents to eat our fruits and vegetables. And we’ve all heard the saying that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Fruits and vegetables even make up the largest arc in many countries’ official Food Guides, with recommended daily servings of 7-10 for individuals aged 19-50.
You may be aware of some of the benefits eating fruits and vegetables has on your health, but did you know that they can actually alter the way your DNA is expressed? This is known as an epigenetic change and its implications are truly fascinating. Read on to learn more about this and other important facts about fruits and vegetables.
Why Are Fruits and Vegetables So Important?
The human body is amazing; it can get rid of viruses and perform great athletic feats, but one thing it cannot do is synthesize vitamins and minerals on its own. Therefore, we must consume vitamins and minerals through our diet. The best source of most vitamins and minerals is—that’s right— fruits and vegetables.
Consider for a moment the actual importance of vitamins and minerals. First of all, they’re absolutely essential for your body’s growth, energy and well-being. For example, Vitamin A (which is found in lettuce, carrots and pumpkin) helps with cell reproduction, immunity, vision, bone growth and hair growth, among many other things. Vitamin E, is an important antioxidant, meaning it prevents the process of oxidation, which may cause damage or death to a cell. Minerals like Magnesium are crucial in making new cells and controlling insulin secretion (the latter of which is typically dysfunctional in diabetics).
Clearly, our bodies would be in trouble without vitamins and minerals, as they’re required for some pretty important functions. Think about it: full-blown diseases are typically caused by the dysfunction of one or more of your body’s systems. But, if your body’s systems have all the tools they need to be top-notch (i.e. vitamins and minerals), you won’t have to worry as much about getting sick.
Epigenetics and Your Health
So, fruits and vegetables can provide us with some great things our body needs, thereby protecting us from getting sick. But, what about those of us that have a genetic predisposition to an illness?
Well, there’s some good news: many genetic diseases are not solely caused by genes. Scientists are now aware of a fascinating thing called the epigenome, which is a collection of chemical compounds (like histones and methyl) that can switch genes on or off. In other words, the epigenome is a record of changes to your DNA. Think of it like having a DNA sequence that’s set in stone (your genotype) but each gene has a switch that can either be turned on or off, resulting in different physical or biochemical expressions (your phenotype). Basically, thanks to the epigenome, your life is not completely doomed if your parents have some sort of genetic illness.
Epigenetics and Your Health Continued…
Because of the epigenome, we can actually modify our DNA through our environment and lifestyle. This is probably one of the greatest discoveries of our time and it certainly has huge implications for the prevention of disease. So far, a wide variety of illnesses and behaviors (including cancer, cognitive dysfunction and reproductive, immune and cardiovascular disorders) have been linked to epigenetic mechanisms.
It’s all about gene-environment interactions. If you have a genetic predisposition for an illness, but nothing in your environment triggers those genes, they will always be turned off and your body will never express that illness. The interesting part is that these changes are heritable. So, your good habits can turn off your bad genes or turn on your good genes. This means that although you may pass on your bad genes to your children, they will be turned off when they’re passed on.
Some studies have found that epigenetic changes can be reversed, however. It’s important for us to realize that even our genes, which we believed for so long were unchangeable, are actually fluid. This can change the way we live and treat diseases.
Role of Diet in Epigenetics
Diet plays a huge role in your epigenome and is one of the most easily studied factors of epigenetic change (this field is referred to as nutrigenomics). Many components of the food we eat have been shown to cause epigenetic changes in humans. This is because the nutrients from the foods we eat, especially fruits and vegetables, enter metabolic pathways where they are modified into molecules the body can make use of.
For example, there’s a metabolic pathway in which methyl groups — organic compounds made up of three hydrogen atoms and one carbon atom — are formed. When these compounds are added to DNA, they silence the gene (an epigenetic modification). This is significant as it means that “bad genes” (which put you at risk for disease) can be silenced by eating foods which contribute nutrients to these specific pathways.
The methyl-making pathway, in particular, has components which include some nutrients you may have heard about or even have sitting in your medicine cupboard. These include folic acid, vitamin B and SAM-e (S-Adenosyl methionine).
Specific Examples of Epigenetic Changes via Diet
You may be wondering exactly what types of bad genes epigenetic modifications may influence. Well, one of the most important epigenetic experiments involved the agouti gene, which all mammals have. When mice, for example, have an active (unmethylated) agouti gene, they are yellow, obese and prone to cancer and diabetes. However, if the gene is silenced (methylated), they are brown, thin and at less risk for developing disease. In a groundbreaking experiment, researchers fed pregnant, yellow mice a methyl-rich diet and most of her pups were thin and healthy and remained so for life. Amazing, isn’t it? You probably have an urge to go consume some methyl-rich foods right now. Leafy green vegetables are your best bet, as they contain folic acid and vitamin B6, both part of the methyl-making pathway.
Compounds (ex. sulforaphane and diallyl disulphide) found in broccoli, garlic and other vegetables have also been found to increase histone acetylation, allowing genes (such as the important tumor suppressor gene p53) to become activated. Of course, if a tumor suppressor gene is activated, it goes without saying your risk of cancer is decreased. Many other fruits and vegetables that we consume show similar effects. For example, resveratrol (a compound found in red wine and in the skin of red grapes) adds acetyl groups to tumor suppressor genes as well.
So, a healthy diet can prevent bad vision, diabetes, cancer, hair loss and so much more. What other motivation do we really need to start eating healthy?
Implications and Future Outlook
The effect of diet on your genes has tremendous implications. It gives us hope that we and our children can be healthy even though a genetic illness runs in our family, so long as we maintain a healthy and balanced diet. It opens up the door for better prevention and treatment options regarding diseases. For example, it’s a future possibility that nutritionists will look at your methylation pattern and design customized nutrition plans that suit your needs.
Making Fruits and Vegetables Taste Better
Sometimes, it’s hard to do what’s right even though we know what’s right. For example, many of us will probably run to the table to grab that last piece of chocolate cake but leave half a plate of vegetables to go to waste. It’s understandable; we all have different tastes.
How can we make fruits and vegetables a bit more tolerable?
Make a Smoothie
Blend fruits and milk (or frozen yogurt) together to make a delicious smoothie. Bananas, blueberries and strawberries mixed together are a heavenly combination, even if you’re not a fan of either individual fruit. You can also try blending kale, bananas and apple juice together.
Make a Delicious Salad
If you’re not a fan of spinach, lettuce or kale on their own, try mixing them with some tasty fruit and nuts, such as apples, pecans and cranberries. Add some dressing and a sprinkle of cheese and you just may be surprised at how good it actually tastes.
Stuff Them or Make a Healthy Dip
If you can’t eat a tomato or a bell pepper on its own, supplement them with a healthy dip such as hummus or a dip made of yogurt and honey. Alternatively, you can stuff them with cheese or rice.
Your body allows you to do the things you love, to go to work and support your family, hug your friends, play sports and so much more. So, why not show it how much you love it? You give your friends and family support, kind words and presents to show them you love them. Give your body the nutrients it needs to show it just how much you love it. Who knows? It may just decide to stick around a lot longer.