A very exciting medical report was recently published in the BMJ in Dec 2014 (BMJ 2014;349:g6674). It looked at the longevity of nearly 5000 women that followed a Mediterranean Diet and found that women who followed this type of diet may have a longer life span. What really was fascinating was that this was not just due to the usual things we think of related to our diet and living healthier (better blood sugar control, lower cholesterol, etc.), but rather by a direct effect on our chromosomes. In other words, what we eat may actually influence our genes, the core of what makes each of us unique.
While it is known that what we eat affects our health and ultimately our life, there is growing medical research that this may be in part due to a direct effect on our chromosomes. We know that what we eat affects our metabolism, i.e. high sugar foods can lead to diabetes which can shorten our life, growing evidence is finding that our longevity may be affected by how we live and the foods we eat by affecting our chromosomes directly.
It starts out a bit complicated but I’ll try to simplify it as much as possible. Our chromosomes are tiny thread like structures found in the nucleus of all our cells that contain our genetic information. Our genetic information is what determines who we are. In a sense, our chromosomes are like the little microchips in our cells that direct and control their function. Our chromosomes and DNA are what makes each of us unique, and gives us our individual characteristics such as our eye color, height, hair type, etc. and ultimately drives our body’s functions.
This study examined a particular part of the chromosome called “telomeres”, which are found at the ends of the chromosomes. Imagine your chromosomes like pieces of a wrapped hard candy, the ends of the wrapper are the telomeres. The length of the telomeres has already been found to be a marker of aging and linked to our longevity. It is a normal part of aging that these telomeres gradually shorten over one’s life, and it has been found that the longer the telomeres, the longer one’s life tends to be. Conversely, the shorter the telomeres are, the shorter the lifespan.
While it has been found that some things, like smoking, obesity, consumption of sugar sweetened drinks and poor physical fitness (1,2) have been found to be associated with shorter telomeres; an exciting finding from this current research was that a Mediterranean type diet may help preserve the length of our telomeres, which could potentially lead to a longer life. The core of this traditional diet among Mediterranean people centers on ample fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains; olive oil, herbs and spices to replace salt; less red meat and more fish and chicken; and for some, a small amount of red wine.
The study did not find that any particular food was individually responsible for the effect, and concluded that it appears to be the diet in its entirety that bestowed the beneficial effect on the telomeres. It was also noted that the majority of the woman in the study that followed a Mediterranean type diet also seemed to have a healthier lifestyle in general. Therefore, the ultimate combination of a long and healthy life is once again, proper diet and exercise. The authors concluded, “Greater adherence to the Mediterranean diet was significantly associated with longer leukocyte telomere length, a marker of biologic aging. Our results further support the health benefits of adherence to the Mediterranean diet”.
The saying “you are what you eat” appears to now be more true than ever, and there is growing evidence that what you eat and how you live may influence your genes directly, for better or worse (it’s your choice). So, for the New Year keep working towards being fit, fearless and fabulous; as well as maybe living a little longer knowing that your diet and lifestyle may directly affect your chromosomes.
1. Valdes AM, Andrew T, Gardner JP, Kimura M, Oelsner E, Cherkas LF, et al. Obesity, cigarette smoking, and telomere length in women. Lancet 2005;366:622-4
2. Leung CW, Laraia BA, Needham BL, Rehkopf DH, Adler NE, Lin J, et al. Soda and cell aging, associations between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and leukocyte telomere length in healthy adults from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. Am J Public Health 2014; published online 16 Oct.