The emerging science of epigenetics is rewriting the rules of  heredity, obesity, diet, and disease. Here, one of the best studies to demonstrate the power of epigenetics to turn a genetic tendency toward obesity into a life of normal weight, health, and healing.


By Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz


In 2003, Robert Waterland, a postdoctoral student at the time, and Randy Jirtle, a professor of radiation oncology at Duke University, designed a landmark study1 on the emerging new field of epigenetics—which explores how lifestyle (diet, stress, exercise, and so on) can reset your genes for wellness…or illness. Indeed, encouraging evidence has linked the power of epigenetics to curtail cancer,2 slow aging,3 and more. But could epigenetics also help in overcoming obesity, Waterland and Jirtle wanted to know?

To find out, the researhers focused their attention on a particular strain of mice that carry the Agouti gene. Not only does this mutant gene make Agouti mice obese and ravenous, it also makes them prone to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, and in turn, shortened lifespans. And it has yet another unusual effect: the Agouti gene causes mice to inherit a yellow—instead of a brown–coat.


Can Diet Reset Genes?

Given the life-threatening and disfiguring physical manifestations that Agouti mice inherit, the epigenetic question Waterland and Jirtle wanted to explore was this: Would a mild modification in the diet of Agouti mothers affect the genetic legacy of a yellow coat and susceptibility to obesity and other diseases they passed on to their children? If so, it would mean that a subtle nutritional change in the pregnant moms’ diet could have an epigenetic influence on her offspring that was so dramatic it might lead to normal weight, a normal mousy brown coat, a disease-free life, and a normal lifespan.

To proceed, Waterland and Jirtle designed their deceptively simple, but groundbreaking, study. Just prior to the mother mice becoming pregnant, the scientists supplemented the mothers’ already-adequate diet with a group of four vitamins that are called methyl donors: folic acid, B12, choline, and betaine. They chose these methyl-rich supplements, because many prior studies had linked this particular methyl chemical group with the power to launch epigenetic changes that switch genes either on or off.1 It’s as if your genes are like the wiring in a house, with the methyl-donating vitamins turning some genes off and others on.


From Obesity to Normal Weight

The methyl donors fed to the test group of Agouti mother mice in the study are quite common, so much so that they are found in foods like onions, garlic, and beets; and they are often recommended as supplements to pregnant women. Once a pregnant Agouti mice mother consumes the methyl donors, they work their way into the chromosomes and then onto the Agouti gene in the developing embryo.
Would the chemical switch made possible by the methyl group consumed by the mother mice silence the harmful effects of the Agouti gene in their offspring?

Remarkably, the offspring in Jirtle and Waterland’s study suggest this is exactly what happened. Unlike the yellow, obese, sickly parent mice that were given the methyl donors, most of their offspring had the normal brown coat of mice; they were slender; they weren’t prone to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes; and had a normal lifespan. Without changing the DNA of the mice, the methyl donors that had attached to the Agouti gene in pregnant Agouti mothers, suppressed its devastating health effects in the offspring. And the profound transformation was due to a simple change in the mother’s diet just before conception.


Small Changes, Big Benefits

What’s interesting about this study is that by every traditional genetic expectation, the mice should have been obese, had a yellow coat, multiple chronic conditions, and a shortened lifespan. But this isn’t what happened; rather, the scientists’ study revealed that seemingly small changes in nutrition can provoke an epigenetic change in the developing fetus that is so powerful it can alter its health and lifespan. In other words, the study created a clear connection between diet and its ability to silence the harmful effects coded in genes.

Jirtle and Waterland’s study is also a landmark discovery because it reveals that when a mother is in good health because of a healthful diet, they pass on the health benefits of their diet to their children—even though they, themselves, may have inherited a genetic tendency toward obesity and other life-shortening ailments. In other words, with the discovery of epigenetics, we now know we can eat to reverse poor health in both ourselves and our children, so that we may all fulfill our health potential.

The key point re health and healing is startling, for it raises the possibility that a simple change in diet can “redirect” genetically inherited, DNA tendencies coded in our genes—so much so that normal weight and health may manifest instead of obesity and illness.


A New Stay-Slim Secret? Reset Your Genes!

Ultimately, with the emergence of epigenetics, we are traveling a previously un-trodden path—replete with unexpected scientific twists, turns, and vistas. One of the more recent insights reveals that an optimal diet (mostly fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds, with lesser amount of wild fish, low-fat hormone-free dairy (see our post on “Chemical Cuisine” for more about this), and lean, grass-fed poultry and meat) can reset your genes—including those you pass on to your children—so that that you create health for yourself and through generations (see “Eat Fresh, Weigh Less”).

And the epigenetic news gets even better, because it reveals that it’s never too late to reap the health rewards—regardless of the genes with which you were born! In other words, the diet most of us typically eat each day—NOW—enables your genes either to “express” or “suppress” illness or wellness. Through the ever-growing body of evidence-based epigenetics studies, you now have the practical insights you need to eat to reset your genes and maintain wellness; to replace a genetic tendency you may have toward obesity and certain ailments, with a positive health destiny…for a lifetime.


    1. Robert A. Waterland and Randy L. Jirtle, “Transposable Elements: Targets for Early Nutritional Effects on Epigenetic Gene Regulation,” Mol Cell Biol. 2003 August; 23(15): 5293–5300.
    2. Dean Ornish, Michael Magbanua, Gerdi Weidner, et al. “Changes in prostate gene expression in men undergoing an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention,” Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2008; 105: 8369-74.
    3. Dean Ornish, Jue Lin, Jennifer Daubenmier, et al. “Increased telomerase activity and comprehensive lifestyle changes: a pilot study.” The Lancet Oncology, 2013 September; 9(11), 1048-1057.


Eat Fresh, Weigh Less

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