How do my genes influence my body's reaction to food?

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)

The University of North Carolina Nutrition Research Institute is a leader in the growing field of individualized nutrition, studying what’s known as nutrigenomics: the link between genes and diet. The science is a comparatively new one, but the early reports are tantalizing.

One study of mice, for example, has pinpointed a binding protein in some individuals that overactivates a suite of genes involved in the synthesis and uptake of cholesterol and other fats. That in turn can lead to insulin resistance, high triglycerides and a condition called fatty liver, in which fat builds up in the liver and inhibits its ability to filter toxins in the blood. People with a similar genetic glitch might be similarly sensitive to dietary fats and have to adjust what they eat accordingly. Another mouse study has found a gene variation that specifically affects the risk of developing high-LDL cholesterol. Yet another has found a gene variation that plays a role in how susceptible individuals are to the carcinogens that are produced when meat is cooked at high temperatures.

It’s too early for these and other nutrigenomic studies to have clinical applications, but your doctor should already be looking at food as a tool for disease prevention, at least when it comes to regulating the intake of salt, cholesterol and other substances in people who are sensitive to them.

Food allergies come into play here, too. You can hardly recommend wheat-based cereal to someone who can’t process gluten or milk to a person who’s lactose intolerant. But pulling those foods out of the diet and replacing them with nothing -- or worse, with junk -- is hardly the answer. Instead, try whole grains without gluten, like quinoa and chia; also try yogurt, kefir, cheese and other fermented dairy products that contain less lactose than fresh dairy foods because the bacteria used to make them digest some of the lactose, so you don’t have to. The longer a cheese is aged, the less lactose it has. (A sharp cheddar aged for two years contains almost none at all.)

The vast constellation of food that’s available to us means that almost anyone’s nutritional needs can be met, even if it takes a little work.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.