Your Genetics And Your Life

“Heart attack? I’m not going to stop eating bacon! My grand pappy ate bacon three times a day, everyday, and he died of natural causes at the ripe ole’ age of a’ hundred and three.” We’ve all heard this or something like it before. A lot of people seem to stake their long-term health on family genetics and dumb down the importance of their environment, nutrition, and exercise habits.

A new article by Gina Kolata of The New York Times takes a look at how genetics affects our overall health and lifespan. The information will surprise you, it seems people’s cavalier attitude about family genetics and individual health is a little unfounded:
Life span is determined by such a complex mix of events that there is no accurate predicting for individuals. The factors include genetic predispositions, disease, nutrition, a woman’s health during pregnancy, subtle injuries and accidents and simply chance events, like a randomly occurring mutation in a gene of a cell that ultimately leads to cancer.


The result is that old people can appear to be struck down for many reasons, or for what looks like almost no reason at all, just chance. Some may be more vulnerable than others, and over all, it is clear that the most fragile are likely to die first. But there are still those among the fragile who somehow live on and on. And there are seemingly healthy people who die suddenly.

Some diseases, like early onset Alzheimer’s and early onset heart disease, are more linked to family histories than others, like most cancers and Parkinson’s disease. But predisposition is not a guarantee that an individual will develop the disease. Most, in fact, do not get the disease they are predisposed to. And even getting the disease does not mean a person will die of it.
Apparently genetics can still leave you at risk for certain diseases, but it isn’t a slam dunk:
Yet even diseases commonly thought to be strongly inherited, like many cancers, are not, researchers found. In a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2000, Dr. Paul Lichtenstein of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and his colleagues analyzed cancer rates in 44,788 pairs of Nordic twins. They found that only a few cancers—breast, prostate and colorectal—had a noticeable genetic component. And it was not much. If one identical twin got one of those cancers, the chance that the other twin would get it was generally less than 15 percent, about five times the risk for the average person but not a very big risk over all.


Looked at one way, the data say that genes can determine cancer risk. But viewed another way, the data say that the risk for an identical twin of a cancer patient is not even close to 100 percent, as it would be if genes completely determined who would get the disease.
Earlier in Kolata’s article she mentions that decades ago people were more inclined to believe environment factors, eating right, exercising, and quality medical care most strongly influenced long-term health. I think Dr. Fuhrman would agree. Check out this from Eat to Live:
Both patients and physicians act as though everyone’s medical problems are genetic, or assumed to be the normal consequence of aging. They believe that chronic illness is just what we all must expect. Unfortunately, the medical-pharmaceutical business has encouraged people to believe that health problems are hereditary and that we need to swallow poisons to defeat our genes. This is almost always untrue. We all have genetic weaknesses, but those weaknesses never get a chance to express themselves until we abuse our body with many, many years of mistreatment. Never forget, 99 percent of your genes are programmed to keep you healthy. The problem is that we never let them do their job.
Most chronic illnesses have been earned from a lifetime of inferior nutrition, which eventually results in abnormal function or frequent discomfort. These illnesses are not beyond our control, they are primarily genetic, and they are not the normal consequence of aging. True, we all have our weakest links governed by genetics; but these links need never reveal themselves unless our health deteriorates. Superior health flows naturally as a result of superior nutrition. Our predisposition to certain illnesses can remain hidden.

Milk: Does It Do A Body Good?

From the January 2005 edition of Dr. Fuhrman’s Healthy Times:

Recent research sheds a very bad light on dairy consumption.

Parkinson’s disease

Recent studies have shown that men who consume more dairy products and who are big milk drinkers have a higher occurrence of Parkinson’s disease.

Honglei Chen, M.D., of Harvard University reported his findings at the annual meeting of the American College of Nutrition (December 2004) and presented a few other studies, one of which was the Parkinson’s Disease Honolulu Study, that showed the same association. The interesting finding was that it was not the fat in milk and dairy that were implicated. Usually, the high saturated fat content of dairy is blamed for its disease risk. But in this case, according to Chen, fat was “out of the picture.” Calcium and added vitamin D also were unrelated. That means something else in dairy is the culprit. The relationship between Parkinson’s and milk consumption has been suspected for decades1 and was first reported by researchers a few years ago. Chen’s and other recent prospective studies have confirmed the earlier, less definitive findings.

Heart disease
A related recent finding is that deaths from heart disease also are strongly associated with milk drinking in adulthood. Of particular interest is that (as is the case with Parkinson’s) the association is with the non-fat portion of milk. Non-fat and skim milk consumption shows the same association as that of whole milk. Researchers found that heart disease death is strongly associated with circulating antibodies against milk. These antibodies are found to bind to human lymphocytes and platelets, thus increasing the likelihood of clot formation. The researchers also concluded that the non-fat aspects of milk have atherogenic effects (plaque-building) both biochemical and immunological, and the simultaneous attack from all these directions explains why milk was found to have such a strong effect on death rate.2

Ovarian cancer
A recent study of 61,000 women found that those who consumed more than 2 glasses of milk per day had twice the risk of serous ovarian cancer than women who consumed fewer than two glasses. The risk of those who drank two glasses a day was double that of women who rarely drank milk.3 Lactose in milk seemed to be the primary culprit. Again this larger study confirms earlier studies with the same findings.
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New England Journal of Medicine: Overweight Contributes to Mortality

Last year some researchers found that being slightly overweight actually lowered the risk of death. Kenneth Chang reports in today's New York Times that two new, larger studies tell a different tale: being even slightly overweight can increase mortality.
The researchers said the more telling analysis arose when they focused on 186,000 healthy men and women who had never smoked. Among men and women, being overweight raised the risk of death 20 percent to 40 percent compared with normal-weight people, the researchers said...

Researchers have almost universally found that obese people have considerable health risks. But there has been debate over whether someone who is less severely overweight is at a greater risk of illness. Other factors, especially smoking, can complicate analysis of the data. Smoking greatly increases the chances of deadly lung diseases, but smokers tend to weigh less.

“No single study is able to solve a controversy of this magnitude,” Dr. Leitzmann said, but he recommended that anyone overweight “should be looking to lose weight.”

A second study by researchers at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, and Johns Hopkins University looked at 1.2 million Koreans ages 30 to 95 and followed them for 12 years. The researchers looked at 82,372 deaths and correlated them with the body mass index. They found, too, that risk of death and cancer increased in people who were overweight, but not obese.
Both studies have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine. You can read both the American and Korean studies online.

As we have blogged about before, Dr. Fuhrman has long been citing the work of Harvard's Dr. I-Min Lee--who studied nearly 20,000 men over nearly thirty years. She found that you practically can not be too thin: the lightest group of men had the lowest mortality. (Of course, he cautions, there is such a thing as being too thin, which is usually anorexia.)

Health Points: Wednesday

Yes, even Bobby Flay can provide inspiration for the vegan chef! His Chinese Chicken Salad is one of my favorite salads of all time: shredded Napa cabbage, sugar snap peas, cilantro, carrots, and peanuts with a zippy red chile peanut dressing. I veganize it by substituting agave for the honey and topping it with grilled tempeh instead of chicken. The flavors sing!
Obese individuals are at increased risk for suffering a heart attack or other "acute coronary syndrome" (ACS), but because they are treated more aggressively than their lean counterparts, their outcomes are actually better, new research suggests.
However, being extremely obese or underweight increases the cardiac mortality risk.
All daily menus should contain a healthy balance of green-leafed vegetables (i.e. chard, collards, lettuces, kale, spinach, etc.), sugary fruits (oranges, melons, mangos, papayas, etc.), and fatty foods (i.e. avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, etc.). Chlorophyll foods build the structure of the body. Sweet fruits fuel the system with glucose. Fats lubricate and oil the body.
  • Believe it or not the AIDS epidemic in the United States is twenty-five years old. The Boston Globe has extensive coverage:
It's been a quarter century since the disease first hit American soil. Take a look at the history of AIDS.
In some ways eating foods in season may seem redundant but at the same time it gives you something to look forward to. As the season gradually changes, the produce changes along with it. Besides, with each influx of a particular veggie you have the opportunity to get really good at using it before moving on to the next veggie. Of course the challenge is to remember all your brilliant ideas from one year to the next.

The Meat-Disease Connection

Dr. Fuhrman’s position on the consumption of animal products is pretty clear, meat and diary dairy products leads to disease like heart disease and cancer. Even “healthy” choices like fish and chicken put you at risk. Take a look at this section from Eat to Live:
There is a relationship between animal protein and heart disease. For example, plasma apolioprotein B is positively associated with animal-protein intake and inversely associated (lowered) with vegetable-protein intake (e.g., legumes and greens). Apolioprotein B levels correlate strongly with coronary heart disease.1 Unknown to many is that animal proteins have a significant effect on raising cholesterol levels as well, while plant protein lowers it.2

Scientific studies provide evidence that many animal protein’s effect on blood cholesterol may be significant. This is one of the reasons those switching to a low fat-diet do no experience the cholesterol lowering they expect unless they also remove the low-fat animal products as well. Surprising to most people is that yes, even low-fat dairy and skinless white-meat chicken raise cholesterol. I see this regularly in my practice. Many individuals do not see the dramatic drop in cholesterol levels unless they go all the way by cutting all animal proteins from their diet.
According to Dr. Fuhrman white meats are no savior either:
Red met is not the only problem. The consumption of chicken and fish is also linked to colon cancer. A large recent study examined the eating habits of 32,000 adults for six years and then watched the incidence of cancer for these subjects over the next six years. Those who avoided red meat but at white meat regularly had a more than 300 percent increase in colon cancer incidence.3 The same study showed that eating beans, peas, or lentils, at least twice a week was associated with a 50 percent lower risk than never eating these foods.

Chicken has about the same amount of cholesterol as beef, and the production of those potent cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are even more concentrated in grilled chicken than in beef.4 Another recent study from New Zealand that investigated heterocyclic amines in meat, fish, and chicken found the greatest contributor of HCAs to cancer risk was chicken.5 Likewise, studies indicated that chicken is almost as dangerous as red meat for the heart. Regarding cholesterol, there is no advantage to eating lean white instead of lean red meat.6
The correlation between disease and consumption of animal products seems very clear. Even newer research warns of heighten stomach cancer risk associated with eating processed meats, like sausage, smoked ham, and bacon. Reuters reports:
A review of 15 studies showed the risk of developing stomach cancer rose by 15 to 38 percent if consumption of processed meats increased by 30 grams (1 ounce) per day, the Karolinska Institute said in a statement.
These foods possess cancer-causing additives outside of meat’s normal cancer-causing agents:
The institute said processed meats were often salted or smoked, or had nitrates added to them, in order to extend their shelf-life which could be connected to the increased risk of stomach cancer, the fourth most common type of cancer.
If this information spooked you, you might want to consider Dr. Fuhrman’s advice, “The best bet for overall health is significantly limit or eliminated all types of meat—red and white.”


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Saturated Fat vs. Polyunsaturated Fat

If you’ve read Eat to Live you know Dr. Fuhrman’s position on saturated fat: avoid it. Especially since it leads to heart disease and cancer:
Some naturally occurring fats are called saturated fats because all the carbon are single bonds. These fats are solid at room temperature and are generally recognized as a significant cause of both heart disease and cancer. Saturated fats are found mainly in meat, fowl, eggs, and dairy. Coconut and palm oil are largely saturated and are also not desirable. The foods with the most saturated fat are butter, cream, and cheese.
Another fat Dr. Fuhrman talks about in Eat to Live is polyunsaturated fat, found in many vegetable oils:
These fatty acids have more than double bond in their chain. These fats include corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil. They are soft at room temperature. These fats promote the growth of cancer in lab animals more than olive oil does.
According to the Associated Press a recent study examined the differing effects of consuming polyunsaturated fat and saturated fat. Even though both aren’t exactly health promoting, polyunsaturated fat does appear to be less harmful on the body. Joe Milicia reports:
Saturated fat has long been linked to the buildup of plaque that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. HDL, the "good" cholesterol, protects arteries from the inflammation that leads to artery-clogging plaques. And plaque hurts the ability of arteries to expand to carry blood to tissues and organs.
The researchers, led by Dr. Stephen Nicholls, a cardiologist now at the Cleveland Clinic, found that three hours after eating the saturated-fat cake and shake, the lining of the arteries was hindered from expanding to increase blood flow. And after six hours, the anti-inflammatory qualities of the good cholesterol were reduced.

But the polyunsaturated meal seemed to improve those anti-inflammatory qualities. Also, fewer inflammatory agents were found in the arteries than before the meal.
If you had to choose between the two Dr. Fuhrman would probably advise passing on both. What kind of fats does he recommend? One favorite is DHA:
DHA is a long-chain Omega-3 fat that is made by the body, but it can also be found in fish, such as salmon and sardines. DHA is used in the production of anti-inflammatory mediators that inhibit abnormal immune function and prevents excessive blood clotting. DHA is not considered an essential, because the body can manufacture sufficient amounts if adequate short-chain omega-3 fats are consumed (flax, walnuts, soybeans, leafy green vegetables). However, because of genetic differences in the enzyme activity and because of excess omega-6 fats, many people who do not consume fish regularly are deficient in this important fat.

Heart Disease Starts Young, Too

From Dr. Fuhrman's book Disease Proof Your Child:

There is considerable evidence that the lipoprotein abnormalities (high LDL and low HDL) that are linked to heart attack deaths in adulthood begin to develop in early childhood and that higher cholesterol levels eventually get “set” by early food habits.1 What we eat during our childhood affects our lifetime cholesterol levels. For many, changing the diet to a plant-based, low-saturated-fat diet in later life does not result in the favorable cholesterol levels that would have been seen if the dietary improvements were started much earlier in life.

As a result of the heart-unfriendly diet, blood vessel damage begins early. Not only does the development of coronary atherosclerosis develop in childhood, but earlier development of atherosclerosis and higher serum cholesterol levels in childhood result in a significantly higher risk of premature sudden death relatively early in life. Sometimes the effects of childhood dietary abuses can be seen relatively early, with premature death or a heart attack at a young age.

When we study people who died young of coronary artery disease, we find that the highest risk of an earlier death occurs in those who were above average weight in childhood.2 Findings from the famous Bogalusa Heart Study show that a high saturated fat intake early in life is strongly predictive of later heart disease burden and the higher blood pressure in childhood and adolescence is powerfully predictive of cardiovascular death in adulthood.3

A low-fiber, high-saturated-fat diet with lots of animal products, dairy fat, white flour, and sugar creates a heart attack-prone person with high cholesterol levels. The anti-cancer lifestyle, a healthy diet style for the entire family, started early in life, will have the added benefit of making it easier for children to become heart attack-proof. A diet high in plant fiber shows a protective effect against developing high cholesterol, obesity, and elevated insulin levels. Eating more of the natural high-fiber plant food in childhood has a powerful protective effect on preventing later-life heart problems, even for those a strong family history of heart disease.4 For those whose family genetically predisposes them to heart disease, early-life dietary excellence can make the difference between a long life free of heart disease and a heart attack in one’s forties or fifties.

The new recommendations developed by the American Heart Association’s Council on Cardiovascular Disease in the Young acknowledge that heart disease starts early in life and that the eating habits and food preferences that are continued into adulthood are more difficult to change. They advise the entire family to limit salt and saturated fat. This is an important message for our society to understand. Heart disease may be preventable and reversible with nutritional excellence in adulthood, but in most cases, people do too little too late and suffer the tragic consequences—40 percent of the American population is stilly dying of heart disease.

Heart disease as a pediatric disease best treated by physicians with the ability to intercede during childhood is an issue that has been discussed by researchers in this field for almost twenty years. At a 1986 heart disease symposium, Roger Williams, M.D., the director of Cardiovascular Genetic Research and professor of medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine, explained that the best way to prevent heart disease in genetically prone patients is to intervene in childhood. He reported, when looking at those genetically predisposed to heart disease, that the only way to strongly protect against a sudden heart attack death at a comparatively young age is to intervene in their youth.5 He also said that telling patients and their families to “watch fat” is sufficient.

Scientific literature has continued to strongly support the view that coronary artery disease leading to heart attacks is an avoidable event, even for those with a strong family history. It is the high nutritional quality of the diet, with more fruits, vegetables, beans, and healthy fats from raw nuts and seeds that offers the type of protection that is really effective.
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