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Researchers Outline Epigenetics, Possible End of Chronic Disease

Kent L. Thornburg, a pioneer in the field of epigenetics at the Knight Cardiovascular Institute at Oregon Health & Science University, told the Oregon Women’s Health Network at the kickoff of its 2015 lecture series “it is likely most chronic disease can disappear over time”
March 17, 2015

“We’ve come to believe chronic disease is inevitable. There’s a lot of evidence against that point of view,” Kent Thornburg told the Women’s Health Network. “We need to stop people from being vulnerable to disease.”

Epigenetics is the study of the environment regulating genes. Identical twins have different fingerprints, and those fingerprints are based on nutritional flow before birth.

From 1989 to 2007, obesity rates doubled in the American population. But if chronic disease rates can go up, “they can go down. We need to talk about when we’re going to end chronic disease,” he said.

Thornburg’s research on how birth weight can predict chronic illness – and “causes an increased appetite forevermore” – also shows “vulnerability doesn’t make disease inevitable. Many epigenetic changes can be reversed.”

Christie Naze, a dietician and diabetes educator at the Center for Women’s Health at OHSU, said “diet-related disease is the biggest killer in the U.S.,” and half of all adults have a preventable chronic disease while more than two-thirds of adults and a third of children are overweight or obese.

She said the $60 billion diet industry is “about getting skinny not about health” with the diet industry’s “war of words” vilifying single foods or nutrients, such as fat, with the unintended consequence of replacing those foods or nutrients with another unhealthy if tasty choice, such as sugar.

Naze works with women who sometimes have a poor relationship with food and their bodies, frequently because they had a negative experience with dieting and the shame of “food police” when what they really need is a positive, comfortable, flexible coach to help them become a “competent eater.”

What is competent eating? Common sense approaches like eating a plant-based diet work well but 90 percent of us don’t get enough vegetables (about three cups a day), 80 percent don’t get enough fruit (about two cups a day), and 100 percent of us don’t get three ounces of whole grains each day, Naze said.

Why do we eat what we eat? Janne Boone-Heinonen studies the interconnection among social and environmental factors, diet and physical activity and maternal health at OHSU.

Not surprisingly, advertising plays a role. Research on the neuronal response to Coca-Cola ads among habitual customers shows the part of the brain responsible for such choices which lights up with exposure to ads.

What about access to healthy foods and the food deserts without supermarkets in some communities? Boone-Heinonen says no strong evidence shows that supermarkets improve diet quality.

What about easy availability of unhealthy food – known as “food swamps” with fast food outlets. Research found problems only among low-income men when food swamps were located within two miles of their homes.

Instead, people need time to prepare food and a desire to cook. It’s not a mother’s fault but stressed-out moms cook less and eat more fast-food and less fruit and vegetables.

Epigenetics, she said, provides a “magnifying glass for disparities that we don’t know how to address.”

The audience tossed out some possible solutions – using the buying power of large institutions such as hospitals to drive healthier choices, getting men more involved in shopping and cooking, and re-establishing home economics as part of the school curriculum.

Thornburg suggested lawmakers consider the health impact of potential legislation. --not just in health policy but also in education and transportation. “For every law, ask if this is good for health.”

Maybe the most radical proposal was to recognize that the food “industry is really powerful and partnering with them is important,” Boone-Heinonen said. “We need to stop vilification and recognize partnerships.”

“We need to be patient,” she said, “but we need to keep trying.”

Jan can be reached at [email protected].