Many of us tend to blame our genes for our health issues. But what if we could influence our genes by eating certain foods, prepared in a specific way?
The new field of culinary genomics, which blends genomic science with nutrition and the culinary arts, says it does exactly that and uses food to influence gene expression.
Registered US dietician, Amanda Archibald, first coined the phrase in 2015 and is now teaching doctors, dietitians, naturopaths and nutritionists around the world about the practice of culinary genomics.
“It takes nutrigenomics – the science of how food interacts with our genes – out of the labs and places it in the kitchen."
Archibald, who was in Sydney this month to present at the BioCeuticals Research Symposium, tells SBS what culinary genomics is.
“It takes nutrigenomics – the science of how food interacts with our genes – out of the labs and places it in the kitchen,” says Archibald. “Culinary genomics teaches us how to use our DNA to determine what we should put on our plates and how to cook it.”
A 101 on the link between our genes and food
Our genes determine how we process and use food.
Archibald explains this with an example. She tells SBS her husband was born to Greek parents but later, orphaned and raised absent of Greek culture. “As an adult, [he’s now] allergic to things that would never have been in the Greek diet to start with like limes, avocados, and cow dairy.
“I said to him, ‘your genes are not lying. Greeks have traditionally always eaten more goat and sheep's milk than cow’s. They also don’t use a lot of limes but instead, they use lemons or oranges.” And so despite his upbringing and environment not being Greek, his genes are.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from: just the fact that you are a human being, your genes are going to respond to some foods in the same way.”
Nutrigenomic advice for everyone
These days, we can access DNA tests that reveal detailed health information about how our bodies process foods and the nutrients we need more or less of. The truth is these tests cost money and not everyone can afford it.
Archibald says this is where culinary genomics comes in.
“On a personal level, a DNA test will tell you how much you need of a particular vitamin or micronutrient compared to the next person. But there are principles [about genes and nutrition] that apply to everyone, whether you know your unique genomic information or not because our bodies all respond the same way to food."
This is because, at a molecular level, our genes respond to the food we eat. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from: just the fact that you are a human being, your genes are going to respond to some foods in the same way.”
“We try to give people the ingredients that contains the information for their genes, so that we can turn off inflammation and reduce the stress in the body.
A 2011 study from Norway suggests that our diet can cause inflammation in the body and increase our risk of developing lifestyle-related diseases. Researchers found that a typical Norwegian diet made of 65 per cent carbohydrates caused some genes to work overtime. This affected the genes that cause inflammation in the body. The study showed inflammation also affected other genes associated with cardiovascular disease, various cancers and dementia.
Archibald explains that culinary genomics aims to give people foods that contain the information for their genes "so that we can turn off inflammation and reduce the stress in the body".
“We do that, essentially, by prompting genes to do their best work [in an environment where] oxidative stress is mitigated or managed. We use foods that have phytochemicals in them that can turn on genes that to combat oxidative stress and inflammation.”
What and how to eat for your genes
Here are Archibald’s top culinary tips to enable the food you eat to interact with your genes and reduce inflammation or oxidative stress in the body.
Eat cruciferous vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, garden cress, bok choy, broccoli and Brussels sprouts are rich in phytochemicals and may reduce inflammation.
- Mix raw and cooked foods
“When we eat for our genes, one of the primary things to think of is to mix cooked food with raw food. Why? Sometimes the heat [of cooking] can destroy important phytochemicals in food.
But take note: this is not a raw food approach to eating: “it’s about mixing cooked food with raw food.” So instead of having chicken and cooked vegetables, enjoy a chicken salad made with fresh lettuce, grated raw carrots and nuts.
- Fresh herbs are best
“Herbs provide a very powerful communication language for your genes. So let’s say you buy a pre-cut salad. Try to add some fresh dill or basil before you eat it.”
- Spice it up
“Spices are also are super important to the food-gene conversation.
“But when you grind a spice, you expose it to oxygen and limit its potential or potency. When it’s in the nut or pod form the nutritional information [inside it] is protected like gold in a safe.
“So in order to get the most out of your spices, buy the whole pod or stick and grind them before use.”