Food, Not Genetics, Determines Some Physical Traits: Study

Health Writer

A recent study on beetles may offer a new perspective on how we end up looking the way we do, as it offers a new twist on the old adage that "you are what you eat."

The study out of Indiana University looked at horned beetles and isolated some unique mechanisms that either inhibited or promoted specific physical traits during early development.  The researchers specifically controlled nutrition intake to see the impact on certain pathways that affect physical development.

One pathway that was a focus of the research is called the hedgehog signaling pathway (Hh), known for directing and specifying the beetle's front and back structure development, specifically the wings and legs.  Researchers found that based on the amount of food intake, genes in this system relay specific information to the cell nucleus responsible for the physical development of the relevant structures.

When the beetle has poor or low sources of nutrition during early development, the pathway appears to “obstruct” the growth of the wings and legs. ** Prior studies had shown that in the presence of robust nutrition sources, growth of the wings and legs was optimal.  Pairing findings from the past studies and this new study, researchers suggest thaptimal development of certain physical qualities is clearly nutrition-dependent.**

The findings of the beetle study confirm the current perspectives of health professionals who specialize in nutrition.  The foods we choose to eat and the quantities we choose to consume impact our developing physical attributes.

A recent study suggests that mothers who eat an unhealthy diet during pregnancy may put their child at risk of developing obesity.  Another study highlights the importance of adequate intake of folic acid and other B vitamins during pregnancy to the offspring’s methylation pathway, which is responsible for supporting critical body functions, including turning genes on and off.  Impaired methylation can lead to numerous health problems.

Experts have also looked at the impact of overfeeding infants and babies, with research suggesting that using bigger bottles equals bigger babies.  A new study found that overfeeding babies can lead to rapid weight gain and herald obesity in adulthood.  The study specifically found that using bigger bottles contributed to weight gain and change in "weight-for-length z score" (WLZ), a standard measurement used in assessing infant size.  With escalating rates of obesity in the child and teen populations, it is critical to understand principles of overfeeding and  the resulting impact on physical development, especially weight.

Nutrition goes beyond physical development. Studies have found a “window of sensitivity” during which time malnutrition or poor quality nutrition may affect infant and toddler (neural) brain and behavioral development. A separate study found that protein-energy malnutrition can result in elevated risk of retardation of the fetus in utero.

The Western diet so common in the United States, meanwhile, has been identified as having a low nutrient profile.  It is a diet typically high in unhealthy fats, sodium, and refined sugars and low in fiber and quality proteins.  Two drivers of the obesity epidemic arefood choices made during pregnancy which affect mom and the growing baby and the types and quantities of food fed to the child  after birth.  In both cases those choices often include larger quantities of fast food and high-sugar beverages. The consumption of that type of food, and the fact that those choices displace healthier, nutrient-dense food and beverage options means that children will likely deal with significant weight surges and a higher risk of developing obesity.

Children consuming a diet of refined grains, added sugars and unhealthy fats may also experience malnutrition -- even if they are obese -- because of the dearth of nutrients in their daily diet.

It may seem a stretch to connect a beetle study and the effect of our own dietary choices on growth patterns. But it’s crucial to recognize that the foods we choose for fuel have a direct impact on the physical development of a growing baby in utero, and the foods we then feed a growing child continue to strongly influence physical development well into young adulthood.

Diet and lifestyle choices parallel genetic influences in terms of the risk of developing obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases.

This beetle study should be motivation to rethink the implications of the current U.S. diet.  A discussion with a health professional to formulate best dietary practices for you and your family could help to optimize the growth and development of your children, and help to limit the family risk of obesity.

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Amy Hendel, also known as the HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert.As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.