By Robyn Chuter
When people ask me why I’m raising my children on a vegan diet, my answer is simple: I want the best for them. I have a terrible family history of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, so I aim to give my children the maximum degree of protection against their possible genetic predispositions to these diseases, by feeding them a diet comprised of foods that have been shown, in published medical research, to prevent them(2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
I must stress here that I’m talking about a diet based on fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains… NOT vegan marshmallows, cupcakes and fake chicken nuggets made from soy protein isolate! This eating pattern supplies ample – but not excessive – unrefined carbohydrate (including highly beneficial resistant starch), protein (including all essential amino acids) and fats (including the essential omega 6 and omega 3 fats). Even more importantly, it supplies a superabundance of micronutrients – vitamins,
minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals – which are not only crucial to our immediate survival, but also shape the expression of our genes in the long run. The exciting field of nutrigenomics is opening up more and more insights into how the foods we eat ‘talk’ to our genes, creating epigenetic effects that may last our entire lifetime – and even influence the health of our unborn children.
For example, studies of what researchers call ‘cholesterol tracking’(9,10,11) show that if a child eats a diet high in saturated fat and develops high cholesterol when he or she is young, that elevated cholesterol tends to persist through adolescence and into adulthood. Effectively, the genes that cause cholesterol to be made in response to fat intake may become ‘jammed in the on position’. So even if that child grows up to be a health-conscious adult who limits his saturated fat intake, he may still struggle to bring his cholesterol down into a healthy range – all because of the foods his parents fed him when he was a child. As the authors of the Cardiovascular Risk in Young Finns study put it, “exposure to risk factors in childhood induces changes in arteries that contribute to the development of
atherosclerosis in adulthood.”(12)
Research conducted in Finland has also put to rest concerns that a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may adversely affect children’s growth and development; the Special Turku Coronary Risk Factor Intervention Project (STRIP) study clearly demonstrated that the neurological development of children on the low saturated fat, low cholesterol diet was at least as good as that of children on the control (regular) diet(13).
Girls who eat a diet high in animal protein in early childhood, are likely to reach puberty earlier(14,15). Women who began to menstruate before the age of 12 are three times more likely to develop breast cancer than those who started their periods later(16). Since a girl’s age at first menstrual period is strongly influenced by how old her mother was when she passed this milestone(17,18), women who enter puberty early may ‘transmit’ a higher risk of early puberty and subsequent breast cancer, to their daughters.
It’s crucial to understand that it isn’t genes as such that are responsible for these adverse outcomes; it’s the influences exerted on those genes by epigenetic factors. Epigenetic literally means ‘above genes’: epigenetic factors are the control switches that determine whether, and how, genes express, or initiate the production of particular proteins that influence body functions. Dietary intake is an incredibly important epigenetic factor.
A diet based on unrefined plant foods protects children against overweight and obesity, asthma, allergies, juvenile autoimmune disease and even ADD/ADHD. And just as importantly, it offers profound protection against the development of heart disease and cancer in later life(19)
© Robyn Chuter 2014
13 http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/284/8/993?ijkey=0b4f82796a19b3f284997a98ec8f07140e497ffa&keytype2=tf_ipse csha
14 UK Department of Health, Working Group on Diet and Cancer of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy. Nutritional aspects of the development of cancer. London, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1998. Downloadable from http://www.nice.org.uk/aboutnice/whoweare/aboutthehda/hdapublications/nutritional_aspects_of_the_developm ent_of_cancer_briefing_paper.jsp
16 Pike MC, Henderson BE, Casagrande JT, in Pike et al (eds) Hormones and Cancer, New York, Banbury Reports, Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory 3, 1981, cited in Fuhrman J, Disease-Proof Your Child, New York, St Martin’s Press, 2005.
19 Fuhrman J, Disease-Proof Your Child, New York, St Martin’s Press, 2005.