"Diabetes runs in my family; it's only a matter of time until I get it."
"Everyone in my family has high blood pressure; it's in our genes."
"He eats everything he wants and never gains weight; he must have good genes."
"My entire family is overweight; I'm never going to be smaller than this."
Popular media has given many of us the impression that our genes are our destiny. But what message does this send us about the control we have over our health? If an illness or ailment is "genetic, " people automatically think, "there's nothing I can do." But in the case of the most common diseases, this is simply not true.
Our genes can tell us about our predisposition - that we are at increased risk for certain illnesses, but not that we are destined to get them. Environmental factors, such as the air we breathe, the amount of movement we do, and our diet, can affect how our genes express themselves. This phenomenon is called epigenetics.
In the simplest terms, epigenetics is the study of how the environment shapes the function of our genes. And while "environment" can mean a whole host of things, the environmental factors that we have the most control over are the amount of exercise we get each day and the food we put directly into our bodies. When it comes to the world's leading diseases, behavior trumps genetics.
Food, in particular, can make a huge difference. Your body is constantly attempting to repair and renew itself. When you feed yourself, you provide your body with the fuel and nutrients necessary to remain healthy. These hundreds of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and other vital compounds help the body resist disease.
Phytonutrients, the bioactive compounds found in plant foods, assist with repairing DNA, suppressing cancer cell growth, inhibiting inflammation, etc. These phytonutrients promote immunity and reduce excess free radicals that cause inflammation and promote the progression of illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.
Over-eating inflammatory foods (fried, highly processed, refined) while not eating enough nutrient-dense foods (fruits, vegetables) can leave your body vulnerable to various diseases, even if you aren't genetically at risk.
For example, genetics only accounts for about 10% of cancers. The overwhelming majority arise from a combination of different lifestyle and environmental factors - the same factors that the nutrient compounds in food attempt to protect us against every day.
Exercise is another important environmental factor that can affect how genes express themselves. In one study following 23 men, researchers took cell samples before and after participants began going to aerobics classes twice a week. After six months, researchers found changes in 7,000 genes, including positive changes in genes linked to obesity and diabetes.
Researchers found fascinating genetic differences in another study comparing 14 sets of twins, one with diabetes and one without. In the twins with diabetes, researchers found unfavorable changes in the genes associated with inflammation and fat and glucose metabolism. Researchers believed this was due to differences in lifestyle between the two twins.
While these studies were small, much of the research into the topic thus far highly suggests that differences in lifestyle can be the critical difference between favorable and unfavorable expressions of genes. Your day-to-day habits matter more than your genetic blueprint. If you've ever thought, "why is my entire family overweight?" or "why do we all have diabetes?" do you also share eating and exercise habits?
Think about it: behaviors tend to run in families. We learn our dietary habits from the people who raise us. Sharing unhealthy meals and sedentary lifestyles can trigger each individual's genetic predisposition toward certain illnesses.
Hence why, it's common to see children and grandchildren begin to develop the same diseases as their elders. This can also extend outwards to communities, where people who don't share genetics still share many of the same lifestyle-related diseases.
Genetic predispositions can tell us a lot about how we need to operate in the world to maintain good health. If, for example, your grandparents and parents have high blood pressure, you may not be able to eat as much sodium in your diet as other people. If heart disease runs in your family, it's even more critical for you to improve your diet and maintain a fitness routine to take care of your heart.
In other words, your beliefs about your genes shouldn't leave you feeling helpless and hopeless. Most risk factors for major diseases, such as high blood pressure, obesity, and hyperglycemia, are all modifiable, meaning they can be changed. Your behaviors - what you eat, how much you eat, how much you move, how often you exercise - can make all the difference, regardless of your genes.
Don't get me wrong. There are some cases where we can't outrun our genetics. But the top global killers, such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, are lifestyle-related diseases. Your health outcomes depend more on what you can control than what you can't.
So if you fear that your genetics will cause you to inherit the illnesses of the people around you, know that engaging in healthy behaviors can more than likely prevent it. You have more power than you think.
Niv Mullings is a Plant-Based Nutrition & Fitness coach from the Bronx, New York. After years of struggling with obesity, anxiety, depression, painful menstruation, and other chronic health complaints, Niv changed her life for the better through fitness and a healthy plant-based diet. Now she helps others to do the same.