Insights & Actions for Healthy Living
Your Genes – How They Impact What You Eat and How Your Body Reacts to Some Foods

Your Genes – How They Impact What You Eat and How Your Body Reacts to Some Foods

We have all heard that our family can influence our health. We are, for example, more likely to struggle with heart health if we have a family history of heart disease.

There are genetic factors for many chronic diseases, which is why providers ask for our family health history.

Lately, we are learning more and more about what we eat influencing our health in a relatively new field of study called nutrigenomics.

Nutrigenomics is defined as the scientific study of the interaction of nutrition and genes, especially with regard to the prevention or treatment of disease.

Genetics, Eating and Preventive Health

Apparently the presence of a certain gene or a mutation in a gene can determine how our bodies react to the foods we eat, why certain foods act differently in different people, and why some are thin and others overweight eating similar foods.

It has been proposed that nutrigenomics may offer answers to prevention of chronic diseases including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, inflammatory disorders, age-related cognitive disorders, and many vitamin deficiency problems.

Scientists are studying not only our family genetics but also the recent mutations or variations known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP).

Many are hoping that nutrigenomics will provide solutions to the epidemic of obesity. Why are some susceptible to obesity? How can we prevent it? More importantly, how can we reverse it?

It may prove to be that there are diet-regulating genes that play a part in the onset and progression of chronic diseases.

Genetic screening combined with nutrition advice are becoming more available at a cost for those interested in this information.

Nutrition and Genetic Testing

Genetic testing is not able to diagnose a disease but will tell us modifiers that we can use to improve our health. When we identify different genotypes, we may be able to determine their reactions to different foods.

Substances known as bioactives found in foods can interact with our molecular structure and lead to diseases.  

Here are a few examples of how nutrigenomics can help us change our dietary habits for health benefits. There are also gene testing for these dietary components: vitamin C, folate, omega 3 fatty acid, saturated fat, sodium and caffeine.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease affects about 1% of the population in the US. It is estimated 5-22% of the people with celiac disease have an immediate family member with it. However family genetics is not an absolute connection since risk is inherited from both parents.

The only treatment for celiac disease is following a 100% gluten-free diet. Genetically, autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease are linked to a family of genes known as human leukocyte antigens or HLA. Testing the blood for HLA (either DQ2 or DQ8) can help diagnose or rule out celiac disease. It will tell you if you are at risk since 35-40% of us carry these genes but only 2-3% develop celiac disease. However, you won’t have celiac disease without the presence of the HLA gene.

Doctors also test for antibodies (IgA, tTG and EMA) in order to diagnose celiac disease as well as performing an intestinal biopsy.

Celiac disease is not the same as an allergy to wheat which involves an IgE antibody test.

Learning that we are genetically predisposed to celiac disease will help us decide that eliminating gluten from our diet will improve our health.


There have been studies showing drinking coffee with caffeine could contribute to high blood pressure and heart attack for some but not others. There is a bioactive or metabolizer in coffee that reacts differently in people with the CYP1A2 genotype. When this was measured, it was found that there people who are either slow or fast metabolizers.

The longer it takes for the caffeine to be cleared from our bodies’ results in increased risk. Fast metabolizers can drink up to four cups a day of caffeine containing coffee with no increased heart risk while the slow metabolizer showed a risk with only 1 cup of coffee.

Testing for CYP1A2 to determine if you are a slow or fast metabolizer could help you decide if drinking coffee is worth the risk.

Where Will We Go From Here?

It is interesting to keep in mind that current research into how certain foods or drugs impact disease prevention, the large scale studies have not taken into consideration how our genetics can influence the results. For example, when researchers test a group of 2,000 participants who all are given similar diets then analyze their results may theorize their risks without the benefit of understanding how their gene variants handle those dietary components. This may call into question the validity of the prior data.

Because it will take an expert to understand the results of genetic testing and help you put the findings into action for your health, it is recommended that you seek out a registered dietitian for DNA-based dietary advice.

A registered dietitian is a nutrition expert who can help you transfer nutrigenomics data into a realistic meal plan that will work for you and your family. Having the information from genetic testing will be more useful if it can be practically applied to your lifestyle.

There is potential that genetic testing results could help you decide if a nutritional supplement is necessary. Is the fish oil you are taking really being effective or do you really need more folate?

Learn More Before Taking Action

The Food and Drug Administration has created a Division of Personalized Nutrition and Medicine, where they are researching nutrigenomics. 

It’s important to know the FDA feels that it is not at a point where testing is ready to be put into practice. Perhaps it needs a little more time for truly accurate tests to be developed and to increase our knowledge of the best response to the results for our health.

Because this field is in its infancy, there is yet to be governmental oversight. What that means is there is no regulation on the accuracy of the testing results especially from a mail order company.

Most agree that testing should be conducted under the guidance of a healthcare professional. There are issues of privacy as well since these companies are not covered under the HIPAA law and could disclose certain details of your genetic makeup that you may not want other entities to know.

Knowing you have a disease risk gene so that you can modify your diet could make a difference in overall health. In the future, understanding more about genetics and nutrition may help us deal with chronic disease using dietary changes.

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