Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

How diet influences gene expression and some rainbow recipes

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In this third installment of epigenetic research and its application to health, we look at how our nutrition can turn certain aspects of our genes on or off. As mentioned previously, environment can affect how our genes express themselves, and our food intake is a major contributor. We also looked at several studies that linked healthy diets to a well functioning immune system, 70% of which resides in our gut. Hippocrates’ famous words “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” rings truer than ever.

The push towards a plant based diet emanates from research that confirms the power of phytonutrients and anti-oxidants. Phytonutrients are plant based, health promoting compounds that have protective and healing properties. The recommendation that we eat a “rainbow diet” is based on the finding that plant pigments contain anti-inflammatory compounds that stimulate genes to turn on immune responses and protect against the negative effects of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress, the natural result of using oxygen for metabolism, is necessary for breathing, thinking and physical activity. This stress is compounded by external factors like environmental pollution, radiation, pesticide residues on food, and the chemicals in meat and in water we drink. Some exposure to these toxins are unavoidable, which is where the need for a healthy, varied plant-based diet comes in. For more information go to

Just as pigments have phytonutrients that influence gene expression, so do the flavors, vitamins and minerals contained within fruits and vegetables. For a look at which vegetables and fruits contain important phytonutrients and bioactive gene influencers, see chart below:

Its important to note that just as each individual’s biochemistry is different, so are the environmental triggers and their epigenetic expression. I’m sure you know people who have a smoked their entire life and lived to a ripe old age, and others who have lived model lives and have died well before their time. There’s a complex interplay between triggers, environment, individual chemistry and heredity. The best we can do is incorporate those lifestyle changes that we know are good for us to maximize our chances of staying healthy and energetic.

A varied color palate for your food along with healthy proteins will likely provide you with the nutrients you need.  Deep colors like purple – (grapes, beets, berries)  bright reds – (peppers, tomatoes, pomegranates)  oranges – (carrots, mangoes, sweet potatoes) yellows – (lemons, pineapple) and greens – (broccoli, arugula) are best, but mushrooms, garlic, onions, and cauliflower also have major immune system benefits. Proteins such as sardines, tuna and most types of fish, along with lentils and other legumes have essential antioxidant and B vitamins that repair and synthesize DNA. Spices such as fennel, turmeric, anise, especially in combination with other spices like black pepper have healing and anti-inflammatory properties. Pickled and fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, pickled beets, and kefir are the new stars of nutrition plans because of their prebiotic and inflammation fighting qualities, especially in the colon.


The biochemical process called DNA methylation is one of the major gene regulation mechanisms affected by food consumption. These mechanisms are now being understood as critical in the aging process, inflammatory conditions, and in auto-immune diseases such as cancer. The good news is that many of these processes are reversible, so we have the potential to use food to prevent disease and to treat illness.

So what’s the takeaway? Think colorful, flavorful, fermented, plant, fish, legume, nut, seed and plant based and you’ll be well on your way to optimal nutrition!

Check out these recipes for some tasty ideas! Go to

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