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YOU ARE WHAT YOUR GRANDPARENTS ATE: What You Need to Know About Nutrition, Experience, Epigenetics & The Origins of Chronic Disease

July 9, 2019
By: 
Judith Finlayson
Bestselling Author

Access to nutritious food has been an ongoing concern for several years and with the recent release of a revised version of Canada’s Food Guide the issue has moved to the front burner. While most people supported the Guide’s evidence-based recommendations, serious concerns were raised about the inability of many Canadians to follow its sound advice. The problem is food insecurity. This situation exists when people are prevented from accessing nutritious food due to systemic barriers such as poverty or location and it has become a problem even in economically developed countries such as Canada. One University of
Toronto study indicated that one in eight Canadian households experiences food insecurity. In the North, that figure approaches fifty percent.

Among other problems, food insecurity is associated with increased consumption of processed foods. Many people regularly eat this nutrient-deficient food, which is also high in calories as well as ingredients such as salt, sugar and unhealthy fats, because it’s all they can afford, it’s all that’s available or simply because it’s convenient and for all kind of reasons --- for instance, they may be working two jobs just to make ends meet --- they don’t have time to shop for and prepare fresh food. However, more and more studies are now connecting the dots between consumption of processed foods and health problems such as obesity and related conditions, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

For the past three years I’ve been studying the links between poor nutrition in key stages of development and runaway rates of chronic illness. Take pregnancy, for instance.
Thanks to research conducted under the umbrella known as the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD), we now have an extensive body of evidence linking malnutrition during pregnancy with various types of chronic disease. Simply stated, a fetus relies on its mother to supply its nutritional needs. If she is poorly nourished herself those needs won’t be met and its development is restricted. The earliest research in this area was able to connect low birth weight resulting from poor maternal nutrition with an increased risk of heart disease as an adult.

In countries such as India and China, malnutrition usually results from food scarcity. But in North America, where the so-called standard American diet (SAD) has been dominant for three generations, the situation is different. In prosperous countries we are now seeing a form of undernourishment known as high-calorie malnutrition. Pregnant women who experience this deficiency are often unable to provide the full range of nutrients a fetus needs to develop into a baby that will enjoy good health as an adult. This shortcoming is known as nutritional programming. Nutritional deficiencies in utero may undermine organ development while initiating epigenetic changes that set the stage for illnesses such as obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and heart disease later in life.

Although the numbers vary depending on the source, experts generally agree that North Americans may consume as much as 70 percent of their calories in processed foods. While I never believed that processed food was good for you, I’ve now concluded that it’s negative impact on long-term health is much worse than I previously thought. A growing body of evidence now links the consumption of processed foods not only with an increased risk of developing chronic illness but also a greater likelihood of premature death.

Worse still, research is beginning to show that the negative effects of a diet high in processed foods don’t begin and end with you: In many ways your health can be viewed as a legacy, inherited from your grandparents and passed on to your grandchildren. As our knowledge of epigenetics grows, it’s become increasingly clear that the quality of a mother’s eggs and a father’s sperm is dependent on factors such as diet and exposure to toxins. While we don’t have all the answers by a long shot, we do know that some nongenetic messages are being passed down via reproductive cells and that they appear to influence long-term health from the moment of conception.

Research shows that the negative effects of poor nutrition don’t begin and end with you. Your grandchildren are likely to experience the fallout, too. Three generations of North Americans have been consuming a diet heavy in processed foods. As a result, many, if not most, are suffering from high-calorie malnutrition, the effects of which are being passed on through the generations. We are seeing it in the runaway rates of chronic illness. Moreover, around the turn of the millennium, medical scientists began to predict the unthinkable: today’s young people will be the first generation to have shorter lives than their parents.

The good news is that in Canada at least, the recent revisions to Canada’s Food Guide, which do away with food groups and recommended servings, emphasizing fruits, vegetables and whole grains --- real food --- is a step in the right direction. But outlining the ideal doesn’t address the problem of food insecurity. At the time of this writing we don’t have many details but on June 17 the federal government announced the bare bones details of a national food policy. Their stated intent is to take an integrated approach toward resolving these concerns by, for instance, supporting sustainable food systems at the community level. This includes support for initiatives such as food banks, farmer’s markets and local greenhouses.

While these proposals are admirable, other evidence suggests they do not go far enough. Familes, especially those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, face a wide variety of impediments preventing them from purchasing and preparing fresh food. Consider a 2018 study published in Lancet Public Health that linked income disparity with life expectancy ---the more affluent you are the longer you can expect to live. Even more chilling, the researchers found that children younger than five from the poorest families were 2.5 times more likely to die than children from families that were well-off. Commenting on the report, its lead author noted that food insecurity was a contributing factor to the premature demise of impoverished people. Not surprisingly, in countries with wide income disparity, the poorest people simply can’t afford nutritious whole foods, making processed foods more accessible.

We know that socioeconomic equity plays a key role in the development of chronic disease and we also have a smattering of studies indicating that simple steps such as legislating small improvements to the minimum wage can have major impact on the health of populations. Consider a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, which determined that in the United States, raising the minimum wage to a dollar above the federally mandated level would decrease the number of low-birth weight babies by 1 to 2 percent and would reduce the infant mortality rate by 4 percent. I find it fascinating that economists who actively debate the merits of increasing the minimum wage don’t take public health outcomes into consideration.

We now have plenty of evidence that preventing disease before it develops reaps long-term economic payoffs. As the organization the first 1,000 days noted: “every dollar invested in improving nutrition in the first 1,000 days (of life) yields a return of $48 in better health and economic productivity.” That’s an impressive benefit and doing everything we can to make more nutritious whole foods accessible to everyone will contribute to achieving that objective.