Honoring Our Genetic Roots

Last fall I traveled for the first time to Campofelice, Sicily where my Italian family grew up. Situated along the Tyrrhenian seaside just outside of Palermo, Campofelice (which literally translates to “happy camp”), is a small hillside community with a thriving local food. I fell in love at lunch, about three hours after arriving!

Every morning my cousin Nina, the cook of the house, began her day in town carefully selecting fresh vegetables for lunch and dinner from her favorite farmstand vendors. If we were to enjoy fish for the big mid-day meal, she’d be up even earlier to meet the local fishermen and snag the best branzino. In the afternoon, off she went for just-baked breads. Meals were beyond fresh, beautiful, and nothing-less-than-peaceful moments spent listening to stories about (you guessed it!) food.

While visiting Sicily, we celebrated my great-great aunt’s 100th birthday. We asked to what she credited her fortunate long life. She replied with a laugh, saying it was because of red wine and her family caring for her so well. Considering the average Sicilian lives to the golden age of 85, there is definitely something to this lifestyle.

That something? I call it the epigenetic landscape.

ep·i·ge·net·ics

epəjəˈnediks/

noun

BIOLOGY

  1. the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.

Simply put, epigenetics is the study of how our environment influences genetic behavior. Relationships, careers, stressors, availability of clean water, pollution, food—all of the prominent variables that contour our epigenetic landscape. Some we have no control over, and many we’re not even conscious of on a tangible basis. Food, however, is an epigenetic gift, a variable that wields the power to shape this landscape.

Visiting Sicily was primary evidence of this gift—so much so that I could validate all of the research I’ve observed on genetic and epigenetic science through my years in clinical practice. Perhaps it sounds romantic, but when science and discovery meet intuition and wellness culturally, an opportunity to exponentially expand our understanding of a thing exists.

Consider the care that some gardeners offer their vegetable gardens: varying fertilizers by season, checking for blight, tenting from extreme climatic conditions, watering only in the morning to prevent sunburning of plants. We accept that plants will thrive when we control their environmental influences, yet we still often approach food, one of our most powerful health-attracting tools, with such confusion, constantly trying out the latest diet.

Society and genetics specialist, professor Hannah Landecker, points out in her research that with epigenetics we’re looking at “the collective experience of populations” through history. There is a definite science in honoring our varying genetic histories through food—what our ancestors ate, which foods benefited gene behavior, if they migrated or stayed put, did they mono-crop or were they diversified farmers? Just as important of a question in more modern times: What was their experience of eating like? Our dining environments are as epigenetically influential as any of these other factors.

Not surprisingly, the hottest question my patients ask is what “diet” is best for them: vegan, paleo, macro-biotic, pescatarian, gluten-free? But chances are, we “should” all be eating a mix of these styles. Most importantly, cues from the past help us trace the patterns that sustained our ancestors. How did they thrive and evolve as far as they did? What experiences surrounding food positively shaped their wellness throughout history?

Honoring your genetic roots through food in a word—tenacious.

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