Can Your Grandfather’s Diet Make You Obese?

Woman Showing Fat Belly

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Most people believe that genetic predisposition toward a particular disease or condition is just something you either have or you don’t. As with most things in life, we tend to believe that we, and we alone, are responsible for our physical fitness and that no matter how unhealthy our ancestors may have been, the shape we are in is really only affected by how we choose to eat and live.

But new studies have found that this may not be entirely true. A relatively new field of genetic science has found that the eating habits and lifestyles of our ancestors can actually affect how likely we are to be affected by certain health conditions, including obesity. This can actually progress through multiple generations. It turns out that if your grandfather ate a sugary, unhealthy diet, it may affect how likely you are to become overweight!


Epigenetics and Health

Epigenetics is the study of how behavior during life and biological mechanisms of an organism can affect gene expression — that is, the likelihood of certain genetic traits manifesting themselves in that organism’s offspring. A person or animal’s behavior with regard to diet or physical activity can affect the likelihood of their children having diseases or physical characteristics linked to that behavior. Behavior and experiences in life, it seems, can actually “activate” certain genes that might otherwise stay dormant. Genetic expression can be turned on and off like a light switch.

One of the most famous examples of this phenomenon is the “Dutch Hunger” babies. This term refers to children born to women in the Netherlands who were pregnant during a specific episode of World War II. In the winter of 1944-45, the northern Netherlands remained under Nazi control, while the southern provinces had been liberated by Allied forces. It was wartime and foods and resources were scarcer than usual, but something happened in these northern Dutch provinces that would have a lifelong effect on the children in that region born shortly after.

The southern provinces of the Netherlands provided most of the food for the north, and obviously they couldn’t ship it northward across enemy lines. In order to hinder the Nazi war effort, the Dutch government had also instituted a railroad workers’ strike. The Germans retaliated by cutting off shipments of food to the northern provinces. This resulted in a short famine which became known as the “Dutch Hunger Winter.”

Here is where things get interesting: Many decades later, scientists tracked down adults who were born to mothers that were pregnant during this famine. They wanted to determine if there were any health differences between them and children born in provinces unaffected by the famine. They specifically wanted to study the effects that food shortage played on a gene called insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF-1, which affects physical growth and development.

They found that people born during this period have fewer methyl groups on the IGF-2 gene versus people born in other parts of the country, or even their own siblings who were born after the famine. This shows that even environmental factors to which a person is exposed to in the womb can have a profound effect on someone’s genetic expression.

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