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Genetics And Disease:

Has The Connection Been Overhyped?

Is there a link 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 journey to a 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). Genetics And Obesity

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: Cancer

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 from it.

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 factors.

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 genetics. 

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 Disease

Malfunctions of the circulatory system, including heart disease, will kill 40 percent of Americans, more than the amount killed by any other ailment.

So can we conclude that these 40 percent simply have worse genes than those who escape this fate?

Genetics and Disease ArteryNo. 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 outcome (8).

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 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is a devastating and incurable disease in which the body's immune system attacks the pancreas, leaving the body unable to produce insulin.

Genetics and Diabetes

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 role (15).

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: Following Up

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 Raw Food 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 raw food 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 right diet.

Gain more perspective on the connection between genetics and disease from these articles.

Genetics and Disease: Sources 

1) Bouchard, C. 1996. The causes of obesity: advances in molecular biology but stagnation on the genetic front. Diabetologia 39 (12): 1532-33
2) McArdle, William, Katch, Frank I., et al. Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition and Human Performance, third edition. Malvern, PA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins (1991). pp. 159-161, "Human Energy Expenditure During Rest and Physical Activity.
3) Poehlman ET, Arciero PJ, Melby CL, et al. "Resting metabolic rate and postprandial thermogenesis in vegetarians and nonvegetarians." Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 48 (1988): 209-213
4) Key TJ, and Davey G. "Prevalence of obesity is low in people who do not eat meat." Brit. Med. Journ. 313 (1996): 816-817
5) Doll R. and Peto R. "The Causes of Cancer: Quantitative estimates of avoidable risks of cancer in the United States today." J Natl Cancer Inst 66 (1981): 1192-1265.
6) National Human Genome Research Institute. "Learning About Breast Cancer." Accessed at http://www.genome.gov/10000507#ql
7) Antoniou A. Pharoah PDP, Narod S, et al. "Average risks of breast and ovarian cancer associated with BRCA1 or BRCA 2 mutations detected in case series unselected for family history: A combined analysis of 22 studies." Am. J. Hum. Genet. 72 (2003): 1117-1130.
8) Kagan A, Harris BR, Winkelstein W, et al. "Epidemiologic studies of coronary heart disease and stroke in Japanese men living in Japan, Hawaii and California." J. Chronic Dis. 27 (1974): 345-364.
9) Ornish D, Brown SE, Scherwitz LW, et al. "Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease?" Lancet 336 (1990): 129-133
10) Ebers GC, Bulman DE, Sadovnick AD, et al. "A population-based study of multiple sclerosis in twins." New Engl. J. Med. 315 (1986): 1638-1642
11) Source: McAlpine D, Lumsden CE, and Acheson ED. Multiple sclerosis: a reappraisal. Edinburgh and London: E&S Livingston, 1965
12) Alter M, Liebowitz U, and Speer J. "Risk of multiple sclerosis related to age at immigration to Isreal," Arch. Neurol. 15 (1966): 234-237
13) Swank RL. "Effect of low saturated fat diet in early and late cases of multiple sclerosis." Lancet. 336 (1990): 37-39
14) Kostraba JN, Cruickshanks KJ, Lawler-Heavner J, et al. "Early exposure t cow's milk and solid foods in infancy, genetic predisposition, and risk of IDDM." Diabetes 42 (1993): 288-295.
15) Gottlieb MS, and Root HF. "Diabetes  mellitus in twins." Diabetes 17 (1968): 693-704.
16) Campbell, T. Colin (2006), The China Study:The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health, Benbella Books

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