The epigenetics of eating

By Jean English | Dec 07, 2012

The holidays give us plenty of opportunity to give and get foods that may not be so good for us but taste wonderful. Christmas cookies, gifts of chocolate, pies galore…

At the same time, we’re all exposed to potentially harmful environmental chemicals.

Can we eat our way to health, given the temptations and contaminations in our world?

We can try. According to Washington State University professor Gary Meadows, more than 40 plant-based compounds may turn on genes that slow the spread of multiple cancers.

Most research, said Meadows, focuses on trying to prevent cancer or treat the original tumor, but it’s the spread (metastasis) of cancer to other organs that is usually lethal — and in searching the medical literature, he found dozens of substances that can turn on or off genes that suppress various cancers.

This is “a fruitful area for investigation,” writes Meadows in “Diet, nutrients, phytochemicals, and cancer metastasis suppressor genes,” in the July 2012 issue of Cancer and Metastasis Reviews (link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10555-012-9369-5/fulltext.html; see also “WSU Researcher Documents Links between Nutrients, Genes and the Spread of Cancers,” by Eric Sorensen, Washington State University Green Times, Sept. 20, 2012; newsletters.cahnrs.wsu.edu/category/green-times/)

For example, luteolin, an organic molecule produced by various fruits, vegetables and spices, increased the expression of a protein in prostate cancer cells (in vitro), and that increase correlated with decreased cancer cell invasion.

And lycopene, a carotenoid pigment that gives tomatoes, carrots and other vegetables their yellow, orange and/or red color, increased the expression of a protein that was associated with inhibiting the migration and invasion of liver cancer cells.

These changes in gene expression caused by environmental effects, including diet — effects that are not correlated with changes in DNA sequence — are called epigenetic effects.

“This gives new meaning to the popular phrase, ‘You are what you eat,’” said Meadows. “Epigenetic changes in cellular phenotype are inheritable so we can even say, ‘Your off-spring are what you eat.’”

While Meadows said that the environment, including your body, is important in whether or not a cancer will spread, he also notes that very little research has been done on the mechanisms by which certain foods may suppress that spread. This is an area that is as ripe for studying as big red beefsteak tomato is for eating.

Meanwhile, it seems that loading your plate with healthful, colorful fruits and vegetables is a good thing to do. The USDA recommends that half your plate be filled with produce — an easy thing to do and even exceed with all the carrots, cabbage and other goodies in the root cellar.

One way that I like to cook that cabbage (especially red varieties) is to chop it and sauté it in butter with apple pieces (peeled) and salt.

Carrot-raisin salad is a quick way to add color to a plate, too. Just grate some carrots, add some raisins and mix in a little mayonnaise, salt and pepper, and maybe some balsamic vinegar.

We are eating our way through the several deep orange sunshine winter squashes that the garden produced last summer. These are so good simply baked that they need no added ingredients.

And then there are the lavender-butter cookies that may not be so beneficially epigenetic, but it is the Christmas season!

Jean English lives in Lincolnville.

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