You Are What You Eat: Eating for Your Ancestors


Genetics. We all have them. They define a lot about what we are and what we will become. I had a discussion with someone once about how our genetics pre-disposes us to longevity. For some reason he didn’t think genes could play a part  in determining how long one lives. As the son of a doctor, I was surprised that he didn’t seem to know much about the human body. Of course your genes won’t protect you from an on-coming bus, but they might make you quick enough to get out of the way. Similarly, it is not necessarily diet which determines if you are going to get diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer, or other diseases associated with food. You’re genes might decided you will get it no matter what.

The FOXO gene is the one that is most strongly associated with longevity. In general, if all of your grandparents lived to a grand old age, you have a good chance of living long as well. My prognosis – about 90 or so. I was kind of interested in this, so I did a little looking into the FOXO gene and it turns out it is also related to the way your body metabolizes some things. It’s not just that these people live longer, it also seems that they age slower. They are healthy in their old age. Their genetics help them fight off the damaging effects of the environment.

From pnas.org: Of note, the FOXO3A genotype was significantly associated with plasma insulin levels as well as CHD, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes prevalence. This is consistent with a known role for FOXO as a mediator of the effects of insulin and insulin-like growth factors on diverse physiological functions, including cell proliferation, apoptosis, and metabolism. Genetic studies in C. elegansand Drosophila have shown that FOXO proteins are ancient targets of insulin-like signaling that regulate metabolism and longevity.

In terms of biological characteristics, the long-lived cases were older, leaner (lower waist:hip ratio), had lower triglycerides (borderline), lower glucose, lower insulin levels, and higher prevalence of the FOXO3A3 allele at the baseline examination. The cases also had better self-rated health and lower prevalence of cardiovascular disease [coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke and cancer. 

As I am looking up recipes, I find quite a few fad diets which discuss “eating for your blood type” or “eating for your DNA”. A lot of these look like crap to me, but there are certainly cases where eating to fit your genetics is important. Here are a few notes from a variety of studies:

  • Alcohol tolerance is unusual among Native American populations.  With few exceptions, they have only had alcohol based beverages since the arrival of Europeans, a few hundred years ago. (Many Native American’s also have what are termed “thrifty genes” which help them store more fat.)
  • Lactose intolerance is at its highest frequency in some parts of Africa, East Asia, and among Native Americans. Northern Europeans generally have the lowest frequency of this dietary problem.
  • Celiac disease is an immune response to this common protein (gluten). The immune system attacks the villi, hairlike projections that line the small intestine. Because villi increase the intestine’s surface area, they help the body absorb nutrients. (People of Irish origins have high rates of this disorder.)
  • Vegetarian diet along with CHDH A119C and MTHFR C677T play an important role in modulating the homocysteine levels in Indian population. (High chomcysteine levels area associated with heart attacks, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s)
  • Poke, Lau Lau's and Kalua Pig are traditional Hawaiian dishes. Oh, how I love a good Poke.

    In the Pacific Islands, Anemia , riboflavin deficiency, and calcium deficiency are common nutritional problems in the rural and urban areas of many islands, while heart disease , hypertension , type 2 diabetes , obesity , and other chronic diseases are on the rise. This is primarily due to a transition from traditional nutritious diets of fresh fruits, vegetables, poultry, and seafood to a diet with large amounts of imported and highly refined Western foods that are low in fiber and high in fat and sugars.

So, what does this mean for our dinner table? One thing I think we can do is look at the overall distribution of food resources historically and draw some semblance of a healthy diet from it. There are a few things that stand out for me, one is that in the majority of places vegetables made up the bulk of food. Only in the extreme northern regions do we find peoples who’s diet is made up of mostly meat and dairy. Second, I think we can make pretty correct blanket statement in saying that in no other point in human history have we consumed so much processed foods and man-made chemicals and they are taking their toll. The third thing I think is that we need to listen to our bodies. My brains well-being might be quite dependent on, say, fish. However, my friend from India may be quite dependent on a vegetarian diet. Last thing I think worth mentioning is that, contrary to popular belief, under-eating is not necessarily bad for you. We have a tendency to look at someone who is under the average weight and automatically assume that they are not healthy. This is bullshit. We, as a nation, are one of the fattest populations in human history.

Way to look age in the face and say, "fuck you."

I don’t mean to suggest that you should only eat food from your own culture. I mean to suggest that you need to be aware of what you have and have not evolved to cope with. I’m quite certain that Garam Masala is not going to give me grief. It’s all about balance, after all. But, if I did have a little diet mantra it just might be “eating for your ancestors”.

When I was about 9 I had a tee shirt that said “Future Fox” on it. Maybe I should pick one up that says, “Future FOXO”.

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