Civilization, Whither Art Thou

Commentary on Society and Civilization

To Eat, or Not to Eat; That is the Question

I took a look at the last two posts and noticed I was getting a bit scienc-y.  This blog is intended to focus on societal issues and not scientific issues; however, as we all know, science and society often intersect.  I have given the Rosie Heart Attack entry a bit of thought and decided to follow it up with one last post in the series (for now) with a focus on health and science.  The issue is what and how much to eat.

Let's start with butter.  In the 1800s margarine was invented.  It's history began in France, and it was supposed to be a substitute for real butter intended for the military and lower classes.  Eventually, it was found you could mix plant oils with animal fats and get a similar product to margaric acid (the first margarine).  However, it was still expensive to make, since it still relied on beef fat as the principal ingredient.  However, an advance in chemistry called hydrogenation came along in the early 20th century and allowed production of margarine that was almost all plant fats.  It might be clear to some readers that at this point no one is sure what margarine is; and in fact there was a clouding of the term margarine.  Many laws in various states tried to restrict names and other factors involved in the selling of butter substitutes.

Margarine reached a peak popularity probably in the 50s.  Many people thought that since it was based from plants it must be better for you; eat your vegetables, right?  But in fact the hydrogenation of the plant oils made the fats not only more similar to animal fats than plant oils, it also made the hydrogenated fats worse for you.  It wasn't for a while, though, until researchers figured out that hydrogenated oils lower your HDL, raise your LDL, promote inflammation, damage the epithelial cells that line your arteries, promote insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes, and also promote obesity.  Everything I just said is backed up by years and years of research.  Thus, eating these fats is a multifaceted attack on your health.  

But many people just said that the researchers didn't know what they were talking about.  They would say, "Everyone said they were fine before, now they say they're bad.  I don't think they know anything."  And they go on eating hydrogenated oils.  The same can be said of salt, alcohol, chocolate, sugar/carbs, protein, fat, and many other dietary substances.  Society feels like they are being told one day that salt is bad, and then the next day that salt is good.  The same with all the others on the list.  One day grains on the base of the pyramid, the next the food pyramid is gone (which it is) and grains seem to be reduced and lean protein increased.  

Today I'm here to make it worse and better at the same time.  So after that somewhat lengthy introduction, humor me for a few more paragraphs and lets see if I can wrap up the gist of what I believe is going on below.

Well over a decade ago researchers realized that some individuals do not produce CCR5, a receptor mainly found on CD4+ cells.  Now, that may not sound like much, but what it did was more or less make the person with that mutation immune to HIV infection.  This was because HIV needs to bind to the CD4 receptor, and then it needs to use the CCR5 receptor to get into the cell.  If either are missing, then HIV doesn't get in.  Now if a person is missing CD4, then they are in bigger trouble than an HIV infection; but it turns out we as humans don't necessarily need CCR5 to function normally due to a redundancy built into our genetic makeup.  So there are people who are immune to HIV walking around (probably less than 1% to 2% of the population, give or take).  This sort of thing is called genetic variation -- in other words, we are all different.

Now let's take that information and apply it to food.  Perhaps the reason we are seeing such contradictory information regarding food and disease is at least partly due to genetic variability.  I think it is, and there is research to back that claim up.  For instance, there is a variant allele for NOS1 called rs7298903.  NOS1 is nitric oxide synthase 1, it is a gene that codes for an enzyme that makes nitric oxide.  If you have that variant allele, and you have a low fruit and vegetable intake, then you are at a 3-fold increased risk for chronic lymphocytic leukemia and/or small lymphocytic lymphoma (CLL/SLL); while if you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables then you have a 60% reduced risk of CLL/SLL.  But what about another variant of NOS1, say rs545654?

It turns out that with the variant rs545654 of NOS1 there is an interesting effect with just red vegetables.  In the low red vegetable intake group there is a 60% reduced risk of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL); but in the high red vegetable intake group there was a 1.7-2.4-fold increased risk for DLBCL.  In fact, there were many cases of variants of NOS1 that showed a similar pattern of increased risk with high red vegetable intake.  So in the one case, you should eat lots of vegetables; but with another variant you shouldn't.  What to do?

At this point in time none of us will likely be able to find out our true genetic makeup.  That is, it is too expensive and time consuming to go through and identify each persons unique genetic variations for each gene.  If you had that information you could start to make more informed decisions about gene-diet interactions; but the truth is, this is a nascent field and there is much yet to discover.  For instance, it has been suggested by researchers that eating tomatoes with garlic may interact with how the sulfur compounds in garlic work in our bodies.  Thus, a society like Japan, which eats garlic, but not as much tomatoes will exhibit a different epidemiological pattern than say in Italy, where they eat lots of garlic and tomatoes.

Once again, talk to your doctor.  Talk to a trusted nutritionist.  Listen to your body.  Keep a food journal.  If you like certain food and feel good eating certain food, then your body probably needs them (and no this doesn't apply in the same way to deserts and alcohol).  We live in an exciting time where scientific information can tell us so much about the world.  But we are just beginning to discover the interactions of food with our genes.  Give it some time, and perhaps one day we will have personalized diets for each individuals genetic makeup.

What all of this doesn't mean, however, is that when doctors and researchers say something is just plain bad, that you can use this as an excuse to ignore it.  Hydrogenated oils aren't good for anyone.  Cigarettes aren't good for anyone.  Excessive alcohol isn't good for anyone.  Eating an unbalanced diet of mainly animal products and starch isn't good for anyone.  We all need certain things.  While we each do have variations, and these variations do play a role in disease, at our core we are all very similar and our needs are likewise very similar.  I hope this entry was both informative and helpful in its own way.      

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