Nutritional Genomics: What are Nutrigenomics & Nutrigenetics?

Martha Henze, Rebecca Gillaspy
  • Author
    Martha Henze

    Martha Henze has taught nutrition, wellness, and medical terminology for five years at Front Range Community College (Westminster, Colorado). Martha Henze has a bachelor's degree in biology from Augustana College (South Falls, SD), a master's degree in nutrition science from Oregon State University (Corvallis, OR), and a second master's degree in global epidemiology from the Colorado School of Public Health (Denver, CO). She is a registered dietitian nutritionist.

  • Instructor
    Rebecca Gillaspy

    Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Learn about what nutritional genomics is. Understand the definitions of nutrigenomics, nutrigenetics, and nutritional epigenetics--the disciplines of nutritional genomics. Updated: 01/18/2022

Nutritional Genomics

Nutritional genomics is the scientific field of study that investigates the relationship between nutrition, genes, and health. As the term nutritional genomics suggests, 'nutritional' focuses on the foods we consume, while 'genomics' focuses on the genes or DNA unique to each person. Nutritional recommendations, such as eating more whole grains and filling half the plate with fruits and vegetables, are meant for the general population to help decrease the risk of the main chronic diseases of cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure. However, individual genetic differences exist among people--from food preferences, to how nutrients are used, to how food is metabolized or burned. The goal of nutritional genomics is to learn how this interaction between nutrition and genes can prevent disease and positively influence human health on both an individual and a population level.

Even though simple genetic saliva tests are a trend today to learn about one's genes and personal health risks, nutritional genomics is not a new field. In 1934, a Norwegian physician described a rare inborn disease of metabolism called phenylketonuria (PKU). In this genetic disease, children develop mental retardation because their bodies lack the gene, which produces the enzyme necessary to break down a protein-building block called phenylalanine. Without this enzyme, high levels of phenylalanine build up in the brain and cause seizures and mental retardation. Dietary intervention is critical. Eating low protein diets prevents children with PKU from developing mental retardation.

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Understanding Nutritional Genomics

Since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, which was the first time that the sequence of all the genes in our body was mapped, our understanding of the link between health and genetics has advanced rapidly. By knowing the order of genes in our body, we can locate certain genetic markers which help determine and predict certain chronic diseases, such as type two diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Not only did the Human Genome Project advance many medical and health disciplines, but also specifically accelerated the field of nutritional genomics.

Nutritional genomics is the broad umbrella term, which can be divided into two opposing disciplines called nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics: nutrigenomics focuses on how diet affects genes, and nutrigenetics focuses on how genes affect diet. The questions these two research areas try to answer are as follows:

  • Nutrigenomics: How does what we eat affect our genes?
  • Nutrigenetics: How do a person's genes impact an individual's response to a diet?

Nutritional Genomics links genes, nutrition, and health.

nutrition genes

Nutrigenomics Definition

What is nutrigenomics? Nutrigenomics is an area of nutrition that investigates how the food we consume affects our genes. Different nutrients in foods can turn on or turn off certain genes associated with diseases ranging from inflammation to cancer. Nutrigenomics looks at the molecular understanding of how specific nutrients in foods affect our genes.

Nutrigenomics Examples

An example of nutrigenomics is the link between a compound in red wine called resveratrol and cancer. Resveratrol can stimulate a gene that protects tissue from free radical damage and thus can help prevent cancer. Folate, a nutrient found in deep green leafy vegetables, is important to make DNA. Thus, when there is a deficiency of folate, one has an increased cancer risk. Another example of nutrigenomics is the link between a compound called polyphenols in dark chocolate and cancer. These polyphenols have been shown to cause a change in gene expression and potentially decrease one's risk of free radical damage, which can lead to cancer.

Nutrigenetics Definition

Nutrigenetics investigate how an individual's DNA can influence how that person responds to different foods and nutrients. Each person is born with genetic variants. If a person lacks a certain gene, then one cannot metabolize certain foods and their components.

Nutrigenetics Example

An example of nutrigenetics is lactose intolerance, in which a person cannot digest lactose that is the natural sugar in milk. People with lactose intolerance lack the gene that makes the enzyme lactase, located in the small intestine, that breaks down lactose. Because there is a buildup of lactose in the small intestine, these people may suffer the symptoms of bloating, gas, and diarrhea within 30 minutes to two hours after drinking milk. These people lack the gene to create the enzyme lactase and thus are lactose intolerant. Most people can consume milk products with no symptoms because they have the gene which produces lactase.

Nutritional Epigenetics Definition

Nutritional epigenetics investigates how environmental and behavioral factors affect genetics and the health of not only the person exposed but of future generations, for better or for worse. There are three main epigenetic changes, one of which is called DNA methylation. In DNA methylation, a chemical group called a methyl group is added to a gene, which can turn on or turn off the gene.

An example of methylation in epigenetics and its effect on the future generation is the famous Dutch Hunger Winter Famine (1944-1945) study. This study examined the effect of famine during pregnancy on the children 60 years later. When looking at the methylation, these children had more methylation compared to siblings born in different years. These Dutch children born during the famine had an increased risk of chronic disease compared to their siblings. Epigenetics also demonstrates that if certain behaviors are changed, methylation changes can be reversed. For example, people who smoke compared to non-smokers have more methylation on a certain gene. However, if a person quits smoking, the amount of methylation on this certain gene can change, and one's risk of cancer decreases.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the relationship between nutrition and genomics?

Understanding the relationship between nutrition and genomics can help us improve our health today and decrease our risk of chronic diseases. Our genes respond to foods we eat, and foods affect our gene expression; thus, understanding both effects can increase our quality of life by following a personalized diet based on our individual DNA.

What is the concept of nutrigenomics?

Nutrigenomics is an area of nutrition that investigates how the food we consume affects our genes. Different nutrients in foods can turn on or turn off certain genes associated with diseases ranging from inflammation to cancer. Nutrigenomics looks at the molecular understanding of how specific nutrients in foods affect our genes.

What is the importance of nutrigenomics?

Learning more about nutrigenomics can help us determine what to eat and drink to decrease our risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and type two diabetes.

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