between genetics and disease? Certainly. Genes are the
code to everything about us - the color of our eyes, the breadth of our
shoulders, and the sound of our voice are all determined by them.
Without genes there would be no diabetes or birth deformities, but
there also would be no life.
Flip though an evening's worth of news coverage and you'll be hard
pressed to avoid hearing about the discovery of a particular gene's
link to a certain disease. The way the information is presented makes
it sound pretty concrete: Got this gene? You're probably screwed. Start
writing your will.
But when we actually examine the link, we'll often find that it is a
tenuous one, and that these diseases can be reliably sidestepped by
taking firm responsibility for our lives.
Genetics and Disease: Can
Genes Make You Fat?
Man, did I ever milk this one. I used to weigh 220 pounds and mentally
and verbally blamed my genetic heritage for its maleficence every day.
After a convoluted
raw food diet, today I weigh 170 pounds. I look and
feel fantastic, and now my genes don't seem so nasty anymore.
But beyond anecdotal weight loss stories, studies have shown again and
again that genetics play only a small part of weight gain and obesity
when measured alongside diet and exercise (1).
Usually we talk about the great metabolism differential as a way to
link up genetics and disease when it comes to weight loss. We see other
people who seem to eat the same amount as us while being considerably
thinner and conclude they must burn calories faster than we do.
Yet the difference between fast and slow metabolic rates is pretty
small, with most studies placing it at plus of minus 5 percent, or
less, between people of similar body sizes. Body size itself accounts
for the primary difference between rates (2).
To put this in perspective, let's assume that we've got a 180 pound,
6ft tall man who needs 1942 calories a day (before exercise or other
activity) to sustain himself according to normal BMR formulas. If we
assume that he has a metabolism that is 5 percent slower than the norm,
that means he must consume 97 calories less per day to maintain his
weight. We're talking about the equivalent of a single large
banana here, which is a difference that anyone could adapt to.
Believing that he has a slow metabolism, it would behoove him to switch
away from the standard American diet and adopt a low-fat, plant-based
one. Such diets, research has shown, cause the body to adopt a higher
rate of metabolism during rest, meaning more calories are burned off as
body heat instead of having them deposited as body fat (3).
Because of this, it's no surprise that vegetarians and vegans are
slimmer than SAD eaters (4).
Further, the idea that genes could be responsible for the doubling of
the obesity rate from 15 to 30 percent of the population over the last
30 years discredits the gene-obestity connection. Our genes simply
cannot change that quickly.
If you want to become slim, stop fretting over your genes, start eating
better, and reap the benefits.
Genetics and Disease:
The general public likely fears cancer more than any other disease. The
idea of some seemingly-malevolent tumor eating away at you from the
inside is something no one wants to contend with. There's good reason
to fear the disease, too, because about 22 percent of Americans die
Once again people cite their bad genes when they get cancer, but once
again the cards don't stack up. By the best estimate of researchers,
genetics are responsible for only 2-3 percent of our cancer risk (5).
The remaining 97 percent? You guessed it - diet and other environmental
One of the saddest elements of our focus on genes is young women having
their breasts removed as a way of preempt the possibility of cancer
later on. Much of this stems from the discovery that the genes BRCA-1
and BRCA-2 cause breast cancer, which has lead to a kind of genetic
fatalism among Americans.
When mutated, BRC-1 and 2 confer a higher risk for breast cancer, but
only 0.2 percent of the general population has these mutated genes
(about 1 in 500) (6).
Although more genes may be found later on, this means means that only
small fraction of the overall breast cancer cases can be attributed to
Even for the rare women who do carry the mutated BRCA genes, half of
them do not develop breast cancer (7).
This is tremendously good news because it means even if you have "bad"
genes, your dietary and lifestyle choices will play a much larger roll
than the BRCAs in whether or not you develop breast cancer. The
every-day choices of what you put in your mouth will be the leading
cause of whether or not you develop cancer, and its something you have
total control over.
Different genes have relevance to the various types of cancer, but they
don't mean much in the face of good nutrition.
Genetics and Disease: Heart
Malfunctions of the circulatory system, including heart disease, will
kill 40 percent of Americans, more than the amount killed by any other
So can we conclude that these 40 percent simply have worse genes than
those who escape this fate?
No. We know this can't be the case because within a group
with the same
genetic heritage, shifting diet dramatically shifts their chance of
getting a disease. Japanese men who move to the U.S. have a much higher
blood cholesterol level and incidence of heart disease than Japanese
men living in Japan, for instance, because most adopt the unhealthy
American diet when they get here. Same genes, different diet, different
Luckily, just as diet causes heart disease, so too can it prevent and
reverse it. Arteries will not be clogged with plaque on a low-fat raw
vegan diet, and will actually reopen.
Dr. Dean Ornish has tested a low-fat diet containing no meat on heart
disease patients. The results were remarkable, including a massive
drops in cholesterol levels, a 91 percent reduction in the severe chest
pains participants were suffering from, and a 4 percent reduction in
their artery blockage over the course of a year (9).
Doctors prefer to recommend lucrative bypass surgeries and pills over
simple lifestyle changes that will earn them nothing, but in doing so
they are hurting their patients.
Genetics and Disease: Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple Sclerosis is a horrible disease in which the brain slowly
loses the ability to communicate with the body, eventually resulting in
disability and death.
Genes are usually blamed for it, but by the best estimates of science,
genetics accounts for no more than a quarter of a person's risk for
multiple sclerosis (10).
And just like with heart disease, we see that when people move from
country to country, they adopt the risk levels of their new country,
especially if they move young and fully adopt the local diet (11) (12).
The consumption of animal protein, especially cows milk, has been shown
again and again to be the leading cause of multiple sclerosis.
Even among patients who already have the disease, those consuming a
diet low in saturated fat (meat and dairy) see it advance much more
slowly than those who eat lots of saturated fat. In one study, of the
patients consuming a diet low in animal foods, 95 percent remained only
mildly disabled, and only 5 percent died. Of those who ate a diet high
in animal food, 80 percent died. (13).
This is a truely dramatic difference, and it shows the power of
nutrition. The link between genetics and disease is not everything its
cracked up to be.
Genetics and Disease: Type
Type 1 diabetes is a devastating and incurable disease in which the
body's immune system attacks the pancreas, leaving the body unable to
Genes certainly play a part here, but once more what is critical is
diet. One study showed that children fed cow's milk as infants had a
risk of developing the disease that was 11.3 times greater than
children who were breast-fed for at least three months (14).
Even among twins with identical genetic material, if one twin gets type
1 diabetes, the other twin has only a 13-33 percent chance of
developing it, which shows us that environmental factors play a huge
Once again we see the importance of a healthy lifestyle and diet based
of whole foods.
Genetics and Disease: Conclusions to Draw
It would not be hard to continue down the list of prevalent diseases
and see that most of them considered to be brought on my genetic fate
are really caused by diet and lifestyle factors.
Even if you have "bad" genes, the key is whether or not your genes will
be activated, or expressed, and nutrition plays a key role here.
Whether its cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or an autoimmune disease,
science has shown again and again that you can prevent, and often
reverse them with a whole-foods, plant based diet (16).
Genetics and Disease:
So what should you do? First, it's critical that you stop throwing your
fate to the wind and make, as I describe in my book, The
Lifestyle, a conscious choice to accept responsibility for
all parts of your life. When you do that, you have infinitely more
power to improve yourself.
Adopt a healthy
diet and watch your health skyrocket, your weight fall to
a healthy level, and your chance of developing diseases plummet.
Genetics and disease play little roll in your ability to thrive on the
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1996. The causes of obesity: advances in molecular biology
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William, Katch, Frank I., et al. Exercise Physiology: Energy,
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McAlpine D, Lumsden CE, and Acheson ED. Multiple sclerosis: a
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"Effect of low saturated fat diet in early and late cases of multiple
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t cow's milk and solid foods in infancy, genetic predisposition, and
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