Do you rigorously stick to plant-based food or is it juicy steak above all else? What we eat is our conscious choice, but researchers from Cornell University have shown how some of us are better equipped to handle vegetarianism than others.
In recent years the vegetarian diet has become a global trend. Its proponents are saying it is a choice which has a positive impact on not only our health but also our environment and society. But for those who have lived off of mostly plant-based food for centuries, this impact goes even deeper, right down to their genes.
In people from India, Africa and parts of Eastern Asia researchers from Cornell University have found a particulate version of the FADS gene which gives the predominantly plant-based nations a significant benefit in obtaining essential nutrients. It was dubbed the “vegetarian gene.”
In short, it enables more effective conversion of omega fatty acids from plant-based fats to its functional forms like EPA and DHA from which our body can benefit!
The omega fatty acids
We all know people who pop food supplement pills like candy. And among the most popular are omega-3 pills. Let’s take a look at what they are and what role do they play. Omega-3 acids, a type of unsaturated fatty acids, are an essential nutrient our body doesn't produce; therefore, we need to get it from food. They are important for cardiovascular health and proper functioning of the nervous system. Studies show that daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids helps our body control blood pressure and triglyceride levels, while also being an anti-inflammatory agent.
The most important omega-3 fatty acids are ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Balanced nutrition usually covers our body's demand for ALA, which can be found in many plants and plant oils. But EPA and DHA are another story because they are limited to fatty fish and algae. In our body, ALA is the precursor of EPA and DHA.
Vegetarian gene to the rescue
Compared to vegetarians omnivores have it better because their nutrition already includes all three of the fatty acids. But vegetarians and vegans have to obtain omega-3 from plants, which is a more complicated process, where enzymes FADS1 and FADS2 play a key role. They are secreted in the liver and help convert shorter chain fatty acids to longer active forms. Their job is therefore to transform one type of omega 3-fatty acids – ALA – to the other two types, EPA and DHA.
Some of us, vegetarians or not, carry an advantage in the form of a favorable version of the FADS gene, which is responsible for the production of the above-mentioned enzymes. This mutation increases the production of the FADS1 and FADS2 enzymes, which speeds up the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA. In practice, this means that people with the mutation can omit animal products from their diet and still get enough omega-3. In contrast, people with an unfavorable copy of the FADS gene are at risk for a deficit.
How common is the vegetarian gene?
Analysis of the 1.000 Genomes project has found a favorable copy of the gene in 70% of South Asians, 53% of Africans, 29% of East Asians and 17% of Europeans. Researchers could not pinpoint the exact time when this gene variation appeared in human history. Our close living relatives apes and chimpanzees don’t have it, but the evidence for it was found in Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes.
Why should I find out if I have it?
Carriers of the »vegetarian gene« are not necessarily big fans of salads and nuts, but their bodies are better equipped to get fatty acids, an essential nutrient, from plant sources. Knowing your genetic makeup can help you adjust your nutrition to your specific needs, and take better care of your health and wellbeing.
And there’s an added bonus: if you're a happy and healthy vegetarian and you have to answer yet another question about how could you possibly thrive on a plant-based diet, you can reply with confidence: »It’s in my genes. «