Imagine if you knew from a DNA test what diseases you were predisposed to. And imagine if you could then find out which foods to eat – or avoid eating – to influence whether or not you might develop those conditions.
This is the fascinating premise behind the science of nutrigenomics: the study of the interplay between food and genes. How do different foods impact our genome? And how might this interaction change our biology to promote health, or conversely, disease?
It may sound far-fetched to imagine we might one day be given a "prescription" of foods to eat. But it's happening to a degree already. I recently attended a workshop given by Amanda Archibald, a US-based dietitian who specialises in what she calls "culinary genomics".
She teaches people about ingredients and cooking methods she says "specifically activate the primary genetic pathways associated with oxidative stress, inflammation and metabolism and optimise gut health".
Food, she believes, can deeply influence how our genes operate or express themselves in our bodies.
Archibald says no matter what our individual genetic makeup, there are certain foods that communicate with our genes in ways that can switch on or super-charge certain beneficial processes in the body.
For example, some foods act as a kind of "fire hose" in the body. Substances in bok choy, kale, cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables turn on an antioxidant switch to "extinguish" oxidation damage in cells.
Other ingredients like lentils and sesame seeds have high nutrigenomic potential because they're so packed with vitamins and minerals. They act as co-factors, or support, for proteins in the body, providing great "return on ingestion".
There's more - ingredients that "seed and feed" the gut to enable genes and food to work together, while foods that support biochemical cycles in the body to detoxify and prevent disease.
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It's hard for this not to sound like a shopping list of what I call magic foods - something I always disliked in health writing. You know what I'm talking about: the breathless articles with titles like "Ten foods to beat stress". You can slot any condition into that headline from arthritis to headaches to cellulite. The premise is verging on the concept of superfoods.
That doesn't work, of course. Eating avocado is not going to make you feel less stressed. The only way we can achieve long-term health is to look at the bigger picture. And when it comes to diet, that never comes down to one individual "super" food – only a super diet.
The idea of nutrigenomics, though, goes deeper than buzzwords. It's already being shown to have disease-fighting potential - research led here in New Zealand has established links between food and inflammatory bowel diseases ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease that could see the development of nutrigenetic treatments. And research is ongoing into the gene and diet interactions that might be at play in the development of type 2 diabetes.
In the meantime, for those of us without a DNA analysis, it's still a good idea to eat some kale.
• Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large for Healthy Food Guide