Do you have vegetarian genes?

US researchers have identified a genetic variation that adapts the body to a vegetarian diet


In the past few years much has been made of the need to move away from the standard ‘one size fits all’ thinking that has traditionally been applied to nutrition. For decades nutritionists have focused on the concept of a balanced diet with a moderated calorific value as the desirable target for healthy living.

Fats, particularly heavily processed fats (like trans-fat) were regarded as the prime enemy of weight management and the bête noir of modern eating. More recently ‘bad’ carbohydrates such as processed sugars and corn syrup have replaced fats as public enemy number one in the fight against an ever increasing global obesity issue.

Since the personal fitness revolution of the 70’s with the proliferation of gyms, celebrity endorsed workout programmes and a continuous stream of ‘new’ and ‘improved’ home exercise equipment there has never been a time when more public attention has been focused on keeping fit.

Nowadays you can download any number of free apps for your smartphone that will provide a nutritional breakdown of food products, estimate the number of calories you burn through any activity you undertake or suggest forms of exercise to help you keep in trim.

Every week the news media carries stories on how being overweight increases the risk of poor health, we’ve even adopted weight loss as a public spectacle with a plethora of TV programmes featuring fat people being forced through a variety of processes designed to slim them down.

Since its foundation in 1967 Weight Watchers, and its many subsequent imitators, claim to have helped millions of people to lose millions of pounds in weight; in the decade between 2004 and 2014 the UK members alone claim to have lost eight million stone in weight between them (112 million pounds). Globally the organisation claims its members shed 11 million pounds in 2011 alone.

Supermarkets have been forced by government regulation to clearly label their products with nutritional information and a veritable army of TV chefs and food programmes has done its best to promote fresh, natural, produce and make fruit and vegetables a much more palatable and exciting option for meal times.

Despite all of this the average weight of an adult (aged over 18) has risen globally by 1.5kg (over 3 pounds) every ten years since 1975 according to a major survey recently published in the Lancet by researchers at Imperial College London.

They estimate that obesity in the male global population has risen from 3.2% in 1975 to 10.8% in 2014, representing some 266 million men around the world.

The increase over the same period was even more pronounced among women from 6.4% to 14.9%, some 375 million women.

So what is going wrong?

Many commentators, and certainly a vociferous chorus of the public at large, believe that it is a lack of personal responsibility that drives these statistics - fat people are lazy and they eat too much is the simple conclusion. Fewer pies and more walks is the answer.

They may have a point, but in the light of everything we’re witnessing and the constant failure of the continuous pressure that society is maintaining on the overweight to ‘shape up’ surely there must be a little more to it?

The plain fact is; should two humans of exactly the same age and gender, of comparable good health and physical size, each consume precisely the same amount of the same type of food and then perform the same physical tasks over the same time period, they will gain or lose weight at different rates.

That will come no surprise to anyone, but just how much does the predisposition of our individual digestive and biochemical systems affect the way in which we deal with nutrition and dietary content? The most recent scientific research and thinking would seem to suggest that this is the missing piece of the puzzle.

There has already been a good deal of research suggesting that the presence of certain types of bacteria in the gut may have an important effect on how well we process certain types of food (and how badly our bodies deal with other types).

Our individual bacterial ‘cocktail’, so vital to the breaking down of the elements within any food, is mostly dictated by the genetic model inherited from our parents.

Nutritionists have speculated that these inherited traits may well dictate how prone we are to storing fats and handling carbohydrates.

Now, however, an even stronger genetic link has been identified.

Researchers at Cornell University in New York have pinpointed an actual allele in DNA found in populations from East Asia and parts of Africa that allows for more efficient processing of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids and their conversion into essential compounds.

This means that this genetic group is more suited to a vegetarian diet. Similar findings have indicated the same genetic modelling of dietary efficiency among the Inuits of Arctic Europe and North America making them far more able to handle a seafood based diet.

These findings and others are leading towards a far more individual approach to nutrition and weight management. Our ability to process food seems, at least in part, to be dictated by the eating habits of generations of our ancestors.

If we can identify the diet that best suits our individual ability to process our food intake, it may just provide the blueprint for a more sustainably healthy diet.



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