Can your diet affect the health of your descendants?

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Several months ago I attended an all day seminar about whole plant foods in Portland.

One of the lecturers gave information that caught my attention. I felt readers of the U-B would find this information to be of considerable interest.

He described how a doctor in Sweden, Dr. Lars Bygren, discovered that how folks ate could affect future generations. The story began in Sweden’s northernmost county Norrbotten, a remote, snow-swept area. It is nearly free of human life with a population of just 6 people per square mile.

It was so isolated in the 19th century that if the harvest was bad some folks starved to death. There were some years where there was total crop failure. Then there were years when food was so abundant that the same people who had gone hungry were able to gorge themselves for months. (Acta Biotheoretica 2001)

Dr Bygren found that sons and grandsons of the boys who overate lived for shorter periods. It could be as much as 32 years less. Further studies showed the same results for girls. To summarize, the information suggested that a single winter of overeating as a youngster could start a chain of biological events that would cause one’s grandchildren to die decades earlier than their peers.

In trying to understand this kind of phenomenon scientists gave birth to a new science called “ epigenetics.” Epigenetics is the study of changes in the activity of genes that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one generation.

It is well known that you can damage your own life by smoking or overeating or the use of alcohol but it is becoming clear that those bad behaviors can predispose your kids — before they are even conceived — to illness and premature death. Hopefully this information may induce some people to be more careful with what they eat.

The same lecturer mentioned that Dr. Dean Ornish, who was one of the doctors who helped Bill Clinton make marked changes in his diet, was able to show that just three months on a plant-based diet increased telomerase activity.

This was reported in the Lancet Oncology journal of 2008. The increase in telomerase activity was regarded as a positive change since decreased telomerase activity is associated with aging and cancer. Folks wanting more information on telomerase may want to look online.

That same lecturer appeared to have a Christian orientation since in his discussion of this information he alluded to how it fit with this quote from the Ten Commandments, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the third and fourth generation.”

Along this same line several years ago I learned because of my interest in the adverse effects of caffeine that when mice were given caffeine equivalent to 3-4 cups of coffee, long-lasting behavioral changes were found which carried down to the second generation of mice.

No one knows how much farther down the line that damage could have been done.

Anyone wanting a more extensive writeup on this subject can search for “Why Your DNA isn’t Your Destiny,” which was an article printed in Time Magazine.

Dr. Don Casebolt of College Place is a retired physician who is passionate about preventive medicine. He spent four years as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy, the last 21/2 years as a flight surgeon. He also worked on the Navajo Reservation for 22 years.

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