Behavior and Epigenetics – The Surprising Reasons Your Kids Care About Your Genetics
If you have a sweet tooth, are overweight, have kids, want to have kids, or just simply have genes, read (and watch) how Hank Green and I weave together a tale about sugar, obesity, behavior and epigenetics.
Epi…what? Touch what?
This connection is going to unfold, step by step. And if you’re interested in some reasons why the industrialized world – meaning the people therein – are overweight and prone to chronic disease, you’ll want to take this little journey into the world of sugar-producing obesity and epigenetics.
Sugar is not only a cornerstone of our obesity epidemic, and thereby of the chronic diseases associated with obesity, but serves as a useful foil for behavior.
We do what we like when we can.
We eat sugar because we like it, it’s cheap and it’s everywhere.
Epigenetics is how your behavior, like copious sugar eating, affects your genetics.
Turns out, your genetic expression is not set in stone. That’s a good thing if there are some genetic expressions you rather not experience, like cancer. It’s a bad thing if your genes are rocking rock solid, but your behavior overwhelms them; behavior such as breathing smoke into your lungs.
Have you heard of The Science Show on YouTube with Hank Green?
If not, in just a moment you’ll discover how insightful and entertaining it is, because I’ve put Mr. Green front and center in this post to be our learned expert in telling the story that I’ve weaved together.
Our story is about this:
1. How genetics loads the gun, but behavior pulls the trigger;
2. Moreover, how behavior and epigenetics not only pulls the trigger for you, but for your kids, and their kids; and
3. How sugar and its sidekick, High Fructose Corn Syrup, have contributed to an obesity epidemic that underscores and provides an example for #1 and #2.
So, if you eat sugar, are overweight, have kids, want to have kids, or just simply have genes, read (and watch) on.
Sugar Runs the Planet
Sugar is a vital thing, as it’s the primary source of energy on earth, from bacteria to plants to us.
It comes in various forms, such as sucrose, glucose and fructose. Put molecular chains of these various sugars together, and you get various forms of carbohydrates.
Carbs are the macronutrient that we use run our bodies. Complex carbs that are slow to be absorbed by the body run our bodies longer than simple carbs – the fast blood absorption type — do.
Clearly, we need sugar.
Just from soda alone, the average American consumes 50 pounds of sugar per year.
Add to that the rest of the food we eat that contains sugar and the count soars to over 130 pounds per year!
Ready for a video demonstration of this? It’s fun, so watch Hank Green educate and delight in Why We Love Sugar (you can skip the ad by clicking it):
Next up, High Fructose Corn Syrup (“HDCS”)
Sugar is expensive. Do to $40 billion subsidies paid to corn farmers by you via our dear ole Uncle Sam, HFCS is very cheap. And cheap is good when, as a food manufacturer, you increase profit by decreasing your cost of goods needed to make your product.
Visualize for a moment your favorite supermarket.
Where are the foods that resemble how they look on the farm that grew them?
Mostly, they’re along the outside perimeter within the store. Given that one side of the box that represents our envisioned store is lined with cash registers, the three other sides contain the real food.
Now, recall what’s in every other aisle in the store. Yes, every other aisle has the foodstuff that is made in factories where it is manufactured, not grown.
Note that there are many more aisles of the factory food than those lonely three offering real food.
By “manufactured foods”, I refer to the product we eat that are derived from food grown on the farm, but do not resemble it, nor contain the original macronutrient composition (protein, carbs, fat) of the original farm-grown food.
These manufactured foods need to be made palatable to your taste buds. Typically, this is achieved by artificially giving them the tastes of fat, sugar and salt.
Because the food manufacturers want to reduce the cost of the product, the sugar used is the cheapest sugar available, thanks to our Uncle (and enabled by our own benign neglect), and that’s High Fructose Corn Syrup.
Now, HFCS has a similar molecular structure to sucrose, but tastes sweeter. So why is it considered worse for you?
The research on this is unclear, although what is clear is that rats get a lot fatter on HFCS than other types of sugar.
What is also clear is that we now eat more manufactured food than ever before, and HCFS is in most of it.
Eat more of something that makes you fat, and guess what happens?
OK, take it away, Hank Green, in his video segment, High Fructose Corn Syrup, The “Dark Lord” of Nutrition:
Read my post:Are You Getting Fat and Sick from Sugar?
Four (and more) Reasons We’re (suddenly) Fat
Starting in 1980, about 10% of Americans were obese; now, it’s above 30%. The overweight number, which includes the obese and merely husky, is over 60%.
Carrying a lot of extra body weight can kill you. Obesity is linked to heart disease, obesity and even cancer.[Read my post: Will Your Belly Fat Cause Cancer?]
Conventional wisdom says that the problem can be conveyed in a pretty simple “calories in, calories out” model; meaning, if you consume more calories than you use to produce the energy you expend, you get fat, and visa versa.
But there’s a nuance here that’s so big that it will bonk you on the head if you think about it…
As compared to our forefathers, not only what we eat is different, but also what we do.
Take sleep for example. It’s the first of four (and more) behavioral reasons that contribute to why we carry too much of the jiggly.
Reason #1: Sleep Deprivation
We don’t sleep enough. Since the 1960s we’ve lost two hours per day of sleep.
Scientists have determined that lack of sleep can lead to obesity. When working properly, the hormones Leptin and Ghrelin tell your body when your hungry, but when you’re sleep-deprived, they become somewhat dysfunctional.
When dysfunctional, it would be great if Leptin and Ghrelin told your body that you’re full, but, alas, biology is not so kind in this instance: You’re told you’re hungry, not full. Thus you eat even when you really don’t need to. (Sounds familiar.)
Reason #2: Climate Control
The next big change between now and forefather times is climate control.
Being that we humans are warm-blooded mammals, it takes a certain amount of calories to keep our bodies at the right temperature.
In the good ole days, turning the dial on your thermostat wasn’t an available option. Shivering or sweating was, which uses calories.
Reason #3: Less Smoking
Smoking is the third reason that may be contributing to an overfat society… but I don’t recommend it as a get thin strategy.
Note: smoking is far more deadly than obesity, but if you breathe smoke into your lungs long enough, you may be thinner than 60+% of your neighbors before you die from some hideous cancer.
Reason #4: More Industrial Chemicals (and other things, like gut bacteria!)
We do know from experiments that rats fed certain pervasively used chemicals get much fatter than the control group, even when they’re fed half the food!
We do know that the typical infant born today comes into the world with “with 287 chemicals in her umbilical cord blood, 217 of which are neurotoxic (poisonous to nerves or nerve cells)…”[Read my post: The Ultimate Heavy Metal Detox]
Which begs the question: Since the industrial age, has the gradually increasing chemical load in our bodies predestined us to getting fatter?
I’ll leave it to Hank Green to delve into the chemical overload thing, as well as why gut bacteria is related to weight, the age of mothers and the size of the fathers they choose in his next video, Obesity:
Read my post: The Seriously Serious Problems of Obesity
How Epigenetics Fits Into The Story
And now, alas, we finally grab all this sugar, fat and behavior stuff and dive into the deep end of the epigenetics (gene) pool.
“Epigenetics” means “above genetics”, and as such is the study of:
“… heritable changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence.” (Source)
For as nature would have it, genetics is not the only determinant of your inherited, genetically predisposed biology… what you do can affect the genetics of your kids!
To get a conceptual handle on this, let’s use computer hardware (the machine) and software (instructions to the machine) as a familiar example.
The genome (DNA) is the hardware (body), whereas the epigenome is the software that will tell the body what to do.
The genome does the work, but the epigenome tells it what to do.
The hardware DNA will stay the same throughout your life, but the epigenetic “tags” (behavioral inputs) do change, and they decide what genes get expressed.
Which brings me back to an earlier statement I made in this post:
“[G]enetics loads the gun, but behavior pulls the trigger.”
What we do, eat, smoke… the malevolence of stress… it all affects what genes get triggered.
This understanding is relatively new.
It used to be thought that what you did made no difference to your offspring, genetically speaking. You could, for instance, smoke three packs of cigs a day and would produce kids completely unaffected by this crazy, self-inflicted wound.
What is now scientifically verifiable is that your behavior can, in fact, get passed down to your kid’s genetics, and their kid’s kids.
A Swedish study showed how this works down the genetic line due to dietary factors, but to nibble on that you’re going to have to watch this next-up entertaining and brain-twisting video from our now very familiar friend, Hank Green, called, naturally, Epigenetics:
By now, you feel either delightfully edutained (educated + entertained), or depressed… or are completely in denial as you prepare lacerate me in the Comments section below.
Whichever; this is the end of this story, for now.
P.S. Many thanks to the witty and sagacious Hank Green and his capable crew at The Science Show on YouTube. Go give them a slap on the back here: http://www.facebook.com/scishow