Genetics makes universal nutrition plan impossible
IF A TERM like nutrigenomics throws your brain into a mental fog, you are not alone. This is one term, however, destined to become a household word in the not-so-distant future. Nutrigenomics is a field of study that is leading to an understanding of why certain nutritional practices benefit some people and not others.
In its most basic sense, nutrigenomics is the study of nutritional individuality. Although each of us has the same basic genetic codes that make us humans, we each have unique variations on the basic theme that we call the human genome. It is these small genetic variations that make our bodies unique. As a consequence, our unique genetic code influences the variety of strengths and weaknesses that affect our physical and mental functions and our health.
Question: How do small variations in our genetic codes make us so different from each other?
Answer: The DNA that makes up our genetic code is essentially a huge recipe book for making more than 100,000 different proteins. The ingredients for each recipe are 20 unique amino acids. These amino acids are assembled by cells, in a specific order dictated by the recipe, to form unique proteins.
In these protein recipes, also known as genes, a single substitution of one amino acid ingredient for another can have minimal to very substantial effects on body function and health. The combination of these thousands of tiny genetic differences can make us more susceptible or resistant to various health problems over a lifetime.
Q: If we are all genetically "pre-programmed," how can factors such as good nutrition and exercise make a difference?
A: Scientists are finding more and more links between specific alterations in protein recipes and susceptibility to particular health problems. Consequently, nutrition and lifestyle strategies can be identified that protect individuals from their particular weaknesses. Gradually, we are beginning to understand why eating certain foods can protect the health of one person and have no effect on another. Similarly, physical activity might be more beneficial to health for some people than it is for others.
As scientists learn more about these relationships, we can anticipate a time when a simple DNA analysis of our genetic code will give us a personal diet and lifestyle prescription to achieve optimal health, prevent chronic disease and live life to the fullest.
, Ph.D., C.N.S. and Joannie Dobbs
, Ph.D., C.N.S. are
nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, UH-Manoa. Dr. Dobbs also works with the University Health Services and prepares the nutritional analyses marked with an asterisk in this section. See also: Health Events