Thursday, March 1, 2012

181. Genes or what's in the jeans?

We often hear, when it comes to analyzing the risk for a chronic disease or medical condition, about the role that family genetics or family history plays in increasing risk. In fact, it is often described as one of the top risk factors for heart disease and some cancers.

However, is that really what is going on? Is it really genetics, or is it related to diet and lifestyle--or maybe the combination of the two?

According to Dr. Pam Popper, of the Wellness Forum in Columbus, Ohio, the role of genetics has been overstated, "In fact, research has shown that the role of genetics in health outcomes is actually quite small," she said.

Dr. Popper continues, "Diet and lifestyle are the biggest determinates of disease, not genes. This does not mean that genes are not important, and many people do carry genes that predispose them to develop certain diseases. But whether or not these genes are expressed is determined by the choices you make. You cannot choose your genes, but you can choose your diet and lifestyle habits, which then in turn, impacts genetic expression."

It makes sense that if family members share the same diet and lifestyle of their parents that they would also be susceptible to the chronic disease of their parents. In other words, if eating a high cholesterol and high fat diet were factors in my father developing heart disease; would it not also be a factor in me developing heart disease in the future since I grew up eating like my father?

The danger in identifying genetics as a risk factor is that some people throw their hands up in the air and dismiss accountability. It makes making bad decisions easier, as one could reason, "I am predisposed to this condition, and it really doesn't matter how I live or eat--it's not my fault." Or it could suspend the adoption of an uncomfortable healthy diet out of the fear that the changes will be all for naught due to the genetic predisposition.

Conversely, it may lead to overconfidence--for if unfavorable genes are of considerable risk, then favorable genes should offer a degree of heredity protection. But that has not proven to be the case.

For example, Asian women, living on the traditional Asian plant-based diet, have one of the lowest breast cancer rates in the world. The Asians had long lived a relatively closed society--and one might surmise that they are genetically predisposed against cancer.

However, when Asian women come to America and start eating the high-fat, highly-processed American diet, which often contains a large percentage of meat and dairy, they begin to develop breast cancer at rates similar to American women.

Information on the Susan G. Komen website confirms this trend, "Immigrants in the United States usually have breast cancer rates similar to those in their home country. Over generations however, the daughters and granddaughters of immigrants take on a risk similar to U.S. women." Specifically in regards to Asian breast cancer rates, "When Asian women migrate to the U.S., their risk of developing breast cancer increases up to six-fold. Asian immigrant women living in the U.S. for as little as a decade had an 80 percent higher risk of breast cancer than new immigrants."

This seems to offer further credence that it might be diet and lifestyle which is the predominant cause of chronic disease-and not just genetic predisposition. In regards, to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, perhaps we should be "eating for the cure," not racing for it. After all, the answer seems to be right there on their website, yet they do not seem to advocate a plant-based diet as a primary method of prevention? (Instead, they partner up to sell pink buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken.)

Genes are certainly important and cannot be discounted in many circumstances, but I agree with Dr. Popper who summarizes, "having a gene is not a life sentence. . . . If you go through life thinking that genes are responsible for your health, you are a helpless victim. But if you know diet and lifestyle determine your health outcomes, you get the control back!"