We currently live in a society marked by the requirements of immediacy, fast-paced work environments, long shifts, and difficulty balancing personal and professional life.
All of these factors contribute to the trend of consuming more ready-made meals and even buying food online, rendering trips to the grocery store unnecessary. Both of these trends help to save time and are considered an important technological advancement, as well as a change in the population’s dietary habits.
Nevertheless, scientific researchers are concerned that we are losing the nutritional values as fundamental as those present when preparing traditional “home-made” meals, where the quantity and quality of the ingredients used is always known, and there is the possibility of going to markets and other shops to carefully select the products that we will later consume.
The main purpose of this article is to invite you to reflect on your own lifestyle, particularly with regard to nutrition.
To introduce you to the topic, it is helpful to remember that nutrition is one of the pillars that will most condition an individual’s health. People often forget this and prioritize other factors such as other variables that influence health, e.g, bad genes or the healthcare system.
Therefore, we must remember, as the Canadian Minister Marc Lalonde put it in his 1974 Public Health Report, creating a conceptual framework to analyze problems and determine the population’s healthcare needs, as well as choosing the means that may satisfy them are fundamental. Said framework is created by dividing health into 4 main elements: human biology (genetics, aging), environment (chemical, physical, biological, social), healthcare systems, and most importantly, lifestyle (health behaviors).
Under the lifestyle category, there are several behaviors or attitudes related to physical exercise, personal hygiene, toxic habits, mental equilibrium, and nutrition.
With regard to the final item, particularly in Spain, we have the Mediterranean diet. This diet is a concept popularized by Ancel Keys, a professor from the United States, who observed that Mediterranean countries had higher life expectancies than other countries in northern Europe. This professor noticed that, despite the wide variety of dishes eaten, there is a common link between all of them: extra virgin olive oil used as the main fat to cook and season foods, and that it is a diet characterized by being rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and legumes (main source of protein), reduced consumption of red meat (favoring consumption of white meat), and moderate consumption of dairy products in the form of cheese and yogurt. There are many foods in the food pyramid.
In addition to the availability of food and access to it, diet is marked by history and the significant events occurring throughout it. When we study the leading causes of mortality in different countries, we find an epidemiological transition where infectious diseases have decreased considerably while the presence of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, among others, has increased. The moment and speed at which this change takes place is marked by a country’s socio-economic possibilities and is a phenomenon associated with lifestyle, particularly nutrition.
When the purchasing power of a population increases, there is a nutritional transition that allows deficient diets to be exchanged for richer and more varied ones. This first change has favorable results as mortality from infectious disease decreases, however, if the transition continues, richer foods with higher calorie contents are introduced, and this leads to an imbalance in our bodies as well as an increase in the risk of suffering from metabolic diseases such as those described above.
Nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics are two sciences that combine nutrition knowledge and adapt it to the genetics of each individual. This way these sciences enable practitioners to be able to personalize and improve the diets recommended to the population. Current research attempts to find whether a relationship exists between the foods we eat and our genes, considering that everyone has individual genes that make them different from others, for example: “The carbohydrates that cause one person to gain weight, may be great for someone else.” The application of this technology will allow people to receive nutrition advice to prevent the metabolic diseases associated with genetics as well as those that are an expression of them. To put it more simply, we may be carriers of bad genes, but through our lifestyles we can keep the genes under control so that they are expressed much later in life, thus allowing for a longer, higher-quality life. In the same vein, people with good genes should also take care of themselves as genes are not immutable and can be altered, negatively affecting health with the production of diseases.
The nutrition of the future will also be the new medicine. Some clinics already offer personalized diets based on the patient’s genome, but experts warn that the research is not so well-developed as to guarantee its effectiveness yet. “The majority of ailments are not purely genetic; nutrition and lifestyle also play a part. You could say that genes don’t change because of what we eat, but they do express themselves one way or another as a result.” The progress made today consists of understanding genetic susceptibility and all the epigenetic and metabolomic mechanisms relevant when selecting, cooking, and eating food. There are personal genetic influences as well as different perceptions among the population with regard to the taste and smell of foods, and these will also influence food selection. All of this combined increases one’s enjoyment of food while ensuring a healthy diet.
The fields where this research applies include the food industry for food design and ingredient selection to improve formulas; food marketing and public health, provided it is aimed at preventing diseases related to nutrition (obesity, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, etc.); and we should not forget to the importance of a good education in nutrition.
In conclusion, although it would be nice to be optimistic with regard to the progress made, the knowledge gained from this field of study is still only in the preliminary phase, and we still have a long road ahead to realize the promises of nutritional genomics and thus contribute to the improvement of the population’s health, but, in the mean time, it is wise to stick with the phrase “you are what you eat.” Bodies can be transformed like the mind by choosing the right foods and maintaining the right dietary balance.
Willett WC, Sacks F, Trichopoulou A, et al. Mediterranean Diet Pyramid: A Cultural Model for Healthy Eating. Am J Clin Nutr 1995;61:Suppl:1402S-1406S.
Sofi F, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A. Accruing Evidence on Benefits of Adherence to the Mediterranean Diet On Health: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;92:1189- 96.
Martínez-González MA, Gea A, Ruiz-Canela M. The Mediterranean Diet and Cardiovascular Health. Circ Res. 2019;124:779-798.
Estruch R, Ros E, Salas-Salvadó J, et al. Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet Supplemented with Extra-Virgin Olive Oil or Nuts. N Engl J Med. 2018 Jun 13. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1800389
Grosso G, Marventano S, Yang J, Micek A, Pajak A, Scalfi L, Galvano F, Kales SN. A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis on Evidence of Mediterranean Diet and Cardiovascular Disease: Are Individual Components Equal? Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017;57:3218–32.
Serra-Majem L, Roman B, Estruch R. Scientific Evidence of Interventions Using the Mediterranean Diet: A Systematic Review. Nutr Rev. 2006;64(2 Pt 2):S27-47.
Willett WC. The Mediterranean diet: Science and Practice. Public Health Nutr. 2006;9:105-10
Galbete C, Schwingshackl L, Schwedhelm C, Boeing H, Schulze MB. Evaluating Mediterranean Diet and Risk of Chronic Disease in Cohort Studies: An Umbrella Review of Meta-Analyses. Eur J Epidemiol 2018 July20
Schulze MB, Martínez-González MA, Fung TT, et al. Food Based Dietary Patterns and Chronic Disease Prevention. BMJ.2018;361:k2396.