Richard G. Petty, MD

The Genetics of Eating

The BBC has just run a story about the latest installment of some fascinating work being done by Professor Jane Wardle, of Cancer Research UK’s health behavior unit.

Two years ago she published data on genetic predispositions to unhealthy eating behaviors. This new study involved more than 200 pairs of same-sex twins, about half of whom half were identical, so sharing all their genes. Based on questions given to the childrens’ mothers, it now appears that a taste for high protein foods like meat and fish are largely inherited. By contrast, a liing for vegetables and sweets are less likely to be fixed and more a reflection of the menu provided by parents. Interestingly, girls were found to be more likely to enjoy vegetables than were boys.

It’s not clear why there should be this separation: genetic predisposition toward protein eating and environmental toward vegetables and sweet things. The researchers though that it might have something to do with variety of choices of vegetables and little choice in types of proteins.

I think, though, that this all makes good sense from an evolutionary prespective. We are going to be exposed to different fruits, vegetables and sweet things throughout the year and particularly as our ancestors migrated. Copying what foods to eat would make sense. The trouble arises when the availability of food throws the system off.

In Healing, Meaning and Purpose, I point out that as recently as ten thousand years ago, is someone wanted something sweet, it would mean sucking a sweet vegetable or risking a raid on a beehive. Oh how things have changed! In 1905 The average annual intake of refined sugar was 60 pounds per person, up from 7 pounds per person in 1805. (It is estimated to be an average of about 150 pounds for each person in the United States in 2005. A twenty-fold increase in just 200 years.)

This research indicates that parents could have a profound impact on their children’s dietary preferences – and help steer them toward healthy options. That being said, there are so many children who develop all manner of likes and dislikes for no readily apparent reason. We have recently been taking a great deal of interest in the oversensitivity to taste and texture of food in many girls with attention deficit disorder. I shall write more about that soon.

But the research also reinforces what I have said so many times: genes are important, but biology is not destiny. There are millions of vegetarians who presumably still have those meat-liking genes on board.

“Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterward.”
–St. Francis Xavier (Spanish Jesuit Missionary and Co-Founder, in 1534, of the Jesuit Order, 1506-1552)

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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