Skip to main content


Conventionally, inheritance has been defined as the phenomenon by which an offspring inherits genes encoded in DNA, half from its father, half from its mother. Now it appears that environmental influences can permanently alter which genes are turned on without changing the code itself. Such "epigenetic" changes can even be passed down to future generations. Some of these environmental factors include pollutants, stress and diet. It may be true that the health of your offspring can be affected by what you and even your ancestors as far back to your great grandmother were exposed to during your reproductive years.
Epigenes are outside the DNA but exert effects on how genes are expressed, particularly by influencing which proteins get made. Epigenetic marks include methyl, acetyl and other chemical modifications, as well as how tightly DNA loops around structures called histones. Scientists have known this for quite some time. Fogging with the insecticide DDT, a common mosquito-control practice in the 1940s and 50s, might have caused epimutations that persist even in some babies born today. Indeed in lab animals exposed to the chemical, more than half of the fourth-generation great-grandpups developed obesity.

Jet fuel, insect repellent and BPA and phthalates - chemical components of food containers and tooth fillings - have also been shown to induce a variety of heritable disorders in fourth-generation descendants, such as pubertal abnormalities and obesity. Though the chemical doses in these studies are much larger than one would typically receive from a contaminated environment, in the case of BPA, blood levels similar to those measured in pregnant American women induced changes in descendants out to the fifth generation which included spending less time exploring their environment.

And evidence on the effects of human exposure are not lacking. In 1976 an explosion at a chemical plant in Italy exposed residents to high concentrations of the industrial byproduct dioxin. In 2010 researchers reported that the exposure led to decreased fertility, a tendency to be overweight as well as thyroid abnormalities in subsequent generations. Thus, although shifts in lifestyle and food availability no doubt account for much of the increase in obesity, diabetes and other diseases of plenty over the past 50 years, it is conceivable that ancestral exposures to toxic chemicals have increased our susceptibility to such diseases.

Epigenetic effects play a crucial role in aging and cancer as well. And it is worth noting that epigenetic changes appear to occur 1,000 times more frequently than the classic mode of inheritance driven by mutations in DNA.

We can't always control our exposure to environmental pollutants present in air and water, but eating organic, shunning animal products (which concentrate chemicals in fat) and avoiding plastic containers are useful measures for minimizing contact with culprits.

Eating healthy and exercising could swing the epigenetic shift in your favor. If you increase your metabolic rate naturally by upping your lean body mass through plant foods and regular workouts, perhaps these habits will induce epigenetic changes for a fast metabolism that you then pass down to your child of the future. A trait we'd all like to be born with.

So remember, you are not just living cleanly for yourself. You are what you eat, but your kids and grandkids could be as well.


Popular posts from this blog


I was watching the TV show Naked and Afraid last night as I sometimes do. The show teams together two strangers, a man and a woman, who attempt to survive on their own for a period of 21 days in some remote and isolated region. Some of the locales featured include the Australian Outback, the Amazonian rainforest and the African Savanna. The man may have a military background, or be an adventurist or deep sea fisherman. Sometimes he's an ordinary dude who lives with mom. The woman is a park ranger or extreme fitness enthusiast or "just a mom" herself. Sometimes the couple quarrel, sometimes one or both "tap out" (quit) in a fit of anger or illness. It is satisfying to see them actually make it through the challenge and reach their extraction point. The victors are usually exhausted, emaciated, begrimed and bare ass naked. 

Even more satisfying, at least for me, is the occasional ass shot, snuck in at strategic intervals to boost viewership, of course. It's co…


There is no such thing as screw-ups.

Case in point. My excellent friend Deej comes over to help me beautify the garden. He immediately dives in, crouching down on his knees and weed whacking with his bare hands. Before I can say yay or nay, he proceeds to remove a huge clump of daisy greens from the oblong patch of Earth adjacent to the driveway. The area instantly looks bare. Like the back of Woody Allen's head. Smoothing out the soil and shaking his head Deej mutters to himself "I fucked it up!" over and over again. We try everything. Planting succulents in the daisy's place. Covering it with rocks. But still the area looks barren. And every time you water it the water trickles down onto the sidewalk in the absence of roots to hold it in place. It's getting dark so we go back inside. The next day I return to the spot with a clear perspective and remove all the other daisies, leaving only rose bushes and the succulents that DJ planted, and depositing 10 bags of m…


This is not a commentary on the latest fitness fad. Because if it were, the little I'd have to say on the subject would be largely derogatory. I simply cannot see see how crouching in a stuffy, dark, cramped room surrounded by sweat-drenched strangers while expending a lot of energy and going nowhere deserves to be called fun, though aficionados tell me it is (fun). I tell these aficionados that if no pain no gain is your thing, discomfort can be had for a lot cheaper than $50 an hour. Try plucking your nose hairs. What we don't do for the sake of beauty. This endurance heir to the Stairmaster and elliptical is all hype. There's a name for the type who likes to run (or otherwise move) in place. It's called a hamster. 

This reminds me of a joke my father likes to tell, about what living with a woman turns a guy into. You go from a wolf to a sheep to a hamster. After nearly 40 years of married life, my dad has added cockroach to the zoological lineage. Which I'm sure …