The nutrients extracted from food enter metabolic pathways where they are manipulated, modified, and molded into molecules the body can use. One such pathway is responsible for making methyl groups - important epigenetic tags that silence genes. Familiar nutrients like folic acid, B vitamins, and SAM-e (S-Adenosyl methionine, a popular over-the-counter supplement) are key components of this methyl-making pathway. Diets high in these methyl-donating nutrients can rapidly alter gene expression, especially during early development when the epigenome is first being established.
“What you eat affects your health and the health of your children,” observed Draelos. “There are no differences between old and young genes, but there are mutations,” she told the audience. “These epimutations can be cast on children and epimutations from food can cause disease.”
Draelos suggested that the widespread use of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) in the 1950s and 1960s may even be linked to diseases that are so prevalent in the US today.
“Is DDT responsible for obesity and diabetes? Is the prevalence of ADHD related to BPA and phthalates?” she asked. “It’s food for thought.”
According to Draelos, it is extremely difficult for consumers to avoid eating many of these contaminants; for example, she noted that even vitamin E gel caps can contain BPA.
Researchers contend that a mother's diet during pregnancy and an infant’s diet can affect the child’s epigenome in ways that remain with the person into adulthood. Animal studies have shown that a diet with too little methyl-donating folate or choline before or just after birth causes certain regions of the genome to be under-methylated for life.
For adults too, a methyl-deficient diet leads to a decrease in DNA methylation, but the changes are reversible when methyl is added back to diet.
And that’s where Draelos offered words of encouragement to the audience.
“You have to eat,” she noted. “But what should people eat to make their skin look great?”
Draelos noted that reactive oxygen species (ROS) are the culprits that make us look old. According to the free-radical theory, oxidative damage initiated by reactive oxygen species is a major contributor to the functional decline that is characteristic of aging.
To combat the deleterious effects of ROS, consumers should eat a diet that is rich in antioxidants such as vitamin E and vitamin C. Draelos also urged physicians to tell their patients to eat micronutrients including co-Q10, selenium, iron, manganese and zinc.
“Selenium protects skin; selenium-deficient mice develop cancer,” she explained.
Draelos also reminded the audience about the importance of getting enough copper and zinc in the diet. Similarly, she promoted the uptake of essential fatty acids such as linoleic and alpha-linolenic. Neither can be synthesized in the body and must be obtained from food. At the same time, she called for avoiding sugar and glycated proteins; i.e., grilled meats—both have been linked to diabetes.
“Crunchy things like potato chips and charred meat aren’t good for you,” she concluded.
So the next time you’re filling your plate, load up on vegetables—just like mom always said!