Research: How to feed your genes

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Are you a cheese fanatic? Can’t stand spinach?

It might be in your genes.

In 2014, Italian researchers discovered 17 genes related to specific food cravings, plus a genetic connection to salt perception. (Maybe that’s why the hubby dumps salt on already-salted food.)

Nutrigenetic research asks how genes affect food choice and the body’s ability to process it. Ideally, this could lead to more personalized diets that make us healthier, and what we eat tastier, by catering to individual genetic preference.

The Italian researchers did genome-wide association studies (GWAS) on 4,000 people in Europe and Asia to pinpoint genes responsible for certain food preferences.

Examining 42 food preferences, they found 17 significant gene associations with these 14 food likes or dislikes:

Artichokes (three genes)


Broccoli (two genes)



Dark chocolate (yes!)

Blue cheese

Ice cream

Liver (must be rare)

Oil or buttered bread

Orange juice

Plain yogurt

White wine (not red?)


The coffee and bacon genes must be nearly universal, but I digress. What’s interesting is that none of these genes encoded a taste or smell receptor — what’s normally associated with craving and revulsion.

Turning to salt, the team discovered a specific gene encouraging more salt consumption, a hint of the link between high blood pressure and salt intake.

In 2018, scientists at Kings College, London found that how we taste spicy, sour, and sweet is also genetically determined. Using questionnaires and blood draws, they studied food preferences of more than 2,000 adults — nearly half of them twins — rating 87 food and drink items and 18 bodily activities. Those correlations were pretty interesting too.

Love fruit and veg? You probably don’t smoke.

An olive, chili, or garlic fan? You might have smoked, but you also exercise.

Sugar freaks (big shock here) and meat lovers (really?) generally don’t like exercise and have a higher BMI.

Next, this research team compared identical twins with non-identical, who only share about half their genes. Are distinct tastes inherited? Some evidence said yes, especially when it comes to a taste for meat. Other research groups had already identified single gene sections associated with certain preferences, such as a variant of the gene OR6A2, which makes cilantro taste like soap to some people.

Could all of this explain why diets aren’t one-size-fits-all?

In 2011, biologists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology looked for that link. Food affects gene expression — the process linking a gene’s DNA sequence to a substance, such as a protein, used in a cell function. They found that overdoing carbs, a common trait in Norwegian, as well as American, diets overworks genes.

That impacts not only inflammation-causing genes, but also those linked to cardiovascular problems, some cancers, dementia, and type 2 diabetes — all the major lifestyle-related diseases.

Plus, when the researchers compared blood tests of the Norwegian study subjects before and after their diet periods, they found genetic health favors five or six small meals, rather than two or three larger ones.

Should those mini-meals include “bad” fats and carbs? Stay tuned.

We can’t do anything about our genes. Genetic risks for certain diseases are predetermined. But we can, say scientists and physicians, reduce or increase that risk with lifestyle choices. Having an illness-related gene doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll develop it.

The Norwegian researchers concluded diet is key to controlling genetic susceptibility. Food choices determine whether we will provide our genes with the weapons that cause disease, or the body to fight it.

So what’s the best kind of diet? A balanced one, say nutrigeneticists.

Overall genes seem to want a simple combination for a healthy diet: One-third protein, one-third fat and one-third carbohydrates. So diets which favor extremes tend to be bad news eventually, by overstimulating genes and risking other health problems, even if you do lose weight.

Their specific diet advice includes fewer boiled, root vegetables (potatoes and carrots), whole meal instead of white bread, limited but varied fruit, more fish (not fried), and less rice and pasta. Here’s one surprise — instead of light products, they recommended real mayonnaise, butter, and sour cream.

Like so many things in life, it comes down to balance. Too much imbalance in any direction, say nutrigenetic researchers, is bad for genes.


Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who finally understands why her kids hate cilantro. Contact her at

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