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Nutrition and Our Epigenetic Inheritance

Updated: Apr 6

By Rose D. Book Review of: Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food by Dr. Catherine Shanahan, M.D.

I read "Deep Nutrition" while working in Physical Medicine, almost 3 years, before I would be finishing my Nutrition, Dietetics, and Wellness degree. I would consider it a precursor, even foundational, to the many influences that encouraged me to change my study course. During that time, after having lost 40lbs and curing myself of hypothyroidism while diminishing the many adverse symptoms associated with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) through nutrition and natural supplementation. I found the topics Dr. Shanahan discussed in "Deep Nutrition" especially poignant. True to her training at Cornell University in biochemistry and genetics. She makes a compelling and striking argument about the impact of nutrition, specifically "traditional food" later to be termed ancestral eating/heritage eating/or even pre-colonialization eating for many groups of peoples in the world. Dr. Shanahan is best known for her role as the Director of the Los Angeles Lakers PRO Nutrition Program, but truly it was her research studying the habits of her healthiest patients that partly inspired her health concerns battling Rheumatoid Arthritis that made a definitive impact.

Dr. Shanahan discovered that there were some common nutritional habits and food traditions shared, between diets in areas of the world, where individuals lived longer; healthier lives; and bred healthier babies. Some of the areas and groups she researched included the Mediterranean, France, Okinawa Islands, and Eskimos/Inuits, among other groups.

Dr. Shanahan describes the connection many indigenous groups have with the sources of their nutrition, as exemplified by discussing the Maasai people, “This prosperity was earned, in large part, by the maintenance of an intimate relationship between people and the land, their animals and the edible plants that rounded out their diets. As a result of this intimacy, they talked about food differently than we do” (p.104). The relationship many indigenous groups have with the sources of their nutrition highlighted their views of food and nutrition; as transcendent, and that food is not simply for fueling purposes alone, but rather as a part of their cultural identity. A cultural identity that needed to be preserved and honored.

The nutritional habits that she discovered were to be formed in the Four Pillars of the “Human Diet”. These four nutritional strategies to optimize human health and wellness are: Pillar One: Incorporating fresh & whole food sources.

Pillar Two: Eating fermented and sprouted foods.

Pillar Three: Eating meat that is cooked on the bone.

Pillar Four: The consumption of organ meats.

"Deep Nutrition" links nutrition and progeny by describing the epigenetic effects of nutrition on siring healthy offspring. For the most part, genetics was once thought to be static, where everyone was at the mercy of their genes, given by their parents. As Dr. Shanahan describes, “This model of inheritance is the reason doctors tell people with family histories of cancer, diabetes, and so on that they’ve inherited genetic time bombs ready to go off at any moment…The underlying principle is that we have little or no control” (p.5). However, as Dr. Shanahan highlights in "Deep Nutrition", epigeneticists have been able to study the impact of our environments and elaborate on the long-standing debate of nurture v. nature and illuminate the bridge between nutrition and gene health.

This is further highlighted by the discussion of maternal nutrition and the continuity of gene health as it relates to birth order and beauty, and as it relates to symmetry. She states that symmetry besides being an indication of beauty, is also an indication of mechanical or physiological health. "Deep Nutrition" also delved into many controversial topics that have led us further away from the ancestral nutritional habits that once kept us strong and healthy. Particularly, the controversy of cholesterol and the impact of the Ancel Keys study on American nutrition and health for many decades since.

Dr. Catherine Shanahan’s passion and expertise exemplified the importance of nutritional health in human health and wellness. The discussion of food, nutrition, and the relationship between many communities in the world, who still practice nutritional habits and food traditions, that align with the habits of our ancestors, was poetic. There was a careful balance between this poeticism and evidenced-based science. The book seems to dance between these two worlds rather fluidly, which made the topics dynamic and engaging. It expressed the great depth and role of nutrition on optimizing health, wellness, and longevity, and equally the health and wellness of our genes. "Deep Nutrition" gives a comprehensive history and implementation plan to achieve optimal health and wellness; and as a result, pass those optimal genes, an epigenetic inheritance, to our offspring by following the nutritional habits of our ancestors. Furthering the ideas that we are commanders of our own health and wellness, and the health and wellness of our progeny.

Reference: Shanahan, Catherine and Luke Shanahan (2016). Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food. New York, New York: Flatiron Books.

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