Genes Are Not Destiny: Francis Pottenger, Appropriate Diet, and Epigenetics

Francis Pottenger (1901-1967) studied the effects of diet on cat health over the course of several generations. He found that feeding an nutritionally inappropriate diet to cats caused extensive changes, including deformities, social and psychological disorders, allergies, and reproductive difficulties. Continuing to feed the same diet to subsequent generations of cats exacerbated these changes, leading ultimately to a complete inability to produce live offspring. Cats did not experience normal health until several further generations were permitted to eat an appropriate diet.

In our times, Pottenger’s field of study is known as epigenetics, “the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself” (Wikipedia). That is, his cat experiment showed that diet can affect how the genes work even when the genes themselves remain unchanged. The DNA of the cats did not change at all: a genetic test would show no substantial genetic difference between the first generation of cats who suffered mild problems, and the third generation who were in extremely poor health and could not reproduce.

Our culture makes much of genetic testing to determine our risk for diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. However, an understanding of epigenetics shows that the presence or absence of an inherited tendency does not determine our health future. For good or ill, our genes are not our destiny. More important is how genes are expressed: even with a strong family history of heart disease (showing a likely genetic component), not every single family member will actually develop heart disease. For some, that gene is never ‘turned on’, while in others it is.

Pottenger found, and scientists continue to find today, that diet (among other factors) can affect the expression of our genes. Eating an appropriate diet can help ensure that health-promoting genes are ‘turned on’, and can prevent disease-promoting genes from being ‘turned on’. Furthermore, our decision to follow an appropriate diet (or not) may have effects on our children and grandchildren which may persist regardless of their own dietary choices.

Understanding what an appropriate human diet is, and making eating choices that reflect that appropriate diet, is therefore urgently important. We can ‘turn on’ or ‘turn off’ genes that promote health or disease by our choices because our genes are not our destiny. But also, our poor choices can lead to an increased likelihood that our children, and grandchildren, will be permanently burdened with worse health than us, even if they choose to eat a diet entirely centered on appropriate foods.

Nutrition Basics: Nutrition and Nutrients

This is the first of a series, exploring topics I’m studying for my course in Nutritional Therapy. Today begins Nutrition Basics.


What is [the science of] nutrition?

“Nutrition is the study of the interaction between living organisms and their food; specifically, the biological processes used by the body to break down, absorb, and utilize the nutrients in food.”

What are nutrients?

Nutrients themselves are “the chemical substances contained in food that are necessary to sustain life”. They “provide energy” (measured by calories), they “contribute to the body’s structure” and physical form, and they “regulate and assist in the body’s processes (as enzymes and hormones”, among many others).

Arguably, providing energy is the least important and least interesting of the actions of nutrients, although we tend to focus on that aspect the most.

Nutrition, as a science, developed around the time when we could measure the caloric content of food, and so that metric was seen as representative of the nutritive value of the foods. Even now, despite the advances we’ve seen in nutrition science, we still try to summarize the nutritive value of food by the number of calories it contains. Or, sometimes, by the macro-nutrient ratio.

We have a bias towards a ‘quantity’ focus in our culture. More is better. Except when less is more.

However, the fact that our nutrients are the basis for the body’s structure, and that they participate in the body’s processes, should suggest that the quality of our food is critical to our health and well-being also.

More important, really.

There is some evidence that eating poor food—that is, eating sufficient quantity but insufficient quality—can contribute to hunger and weight gain through the body’s attempts to obtain more of the apparently-scarce nutrients it needs.

We are over-fed, and yet under-nourished.

Eating nutrient-dense foods, then, prepared in a way to further enhance the nutrient content, is key to getting ‘enough’ to eat, on all levels of the body.

A Birthday Weekend

This was a birthday weekend for me. More than that, a milestone birthday weekend. So there was some eating. And it was okay.

I’m not a huge fan of regular birthday cake in general, although I like the custard-filled poppy seed white cake I usually have. I didn’t want it enough to either figure out a grain- and dairy-free version, or to go ahead and make the regular unadapted cake. For my husband’s birthday, the week before, I had experimented with a chocolate cake that had gone slightly wrong. So I figured I’d try another recipe in the hopes of finding one that would work in the future. It did. It wasn’t fabulous, but it tasted fine, and would make a good layer cake with frosting for the kids if they wanted something that looked like a birthday cake.

The girls and I had a small appetizer of calamari at lunchtime, which would have been better as a large appetizer so we could have had a whole lot more. Tasty, though.

At dinner, we had a bloomin’ onion/cactus blossom/deep-fried onion fabulousness, but ate well apart from that.

I got a king-sized candy bar as a gift from one of the kids, which I shared among the four of us the next day.

While everyone else was seeing Fantastic Beasts at the library, I stayed home and did some decluttering, then, after taking a load to the trash can (down the half-mile driveway), I kept going to the local 24/7 doughnut shop. My birthday treat was BOTH a glazed yeast doughnut and a custard-filled Long John, my two favorites. I gleefully at them both with pleasure, and would have had a cruller too except they were out.

At the grocery store this morning I picked up a check-out lane treat of a hazelnut chocolate candy, as well as a half-pint of cream to put in my coffee.

I enjoyed all my treats, and didn’t seem to suffer too many ill effects from the junk food. Probably it helped that apart from these indulgences, the rest of the weekend was healthy, real food.

Interestingly, this weekend with multiple less-than-ideal foods was not substantially worse than normal eating would have been a few months ago. In fact, because the rest of the meals were fine, it was on average a healthier series of meals than it would have been.

And now the treats are out of the house, the weekend is behind me, and I know that the next meal will be completely back to normal.

Being able to have a treat occasionally—a milestone birthday, not just a random Friday—is important to me. I had to remind myself, though, as I was driving to get my doughnuts, that I was allowed. It was okay to go eat those doughnuts, and to enjoy them as much as I possibly could. It sometimes seems like eating any food that isn’t perfectly health is just a slippery slope to returning to eating junk food all the time.

It isn’t, though. I can choose to eat something a little out of my ordinary now, and then when I’m done, go back to choosing to eat the way I normally do.

Tracking Is Important. And Dangerous.

A food diary to track eating can be as simple as the piece of paper my daughter is currently using, or more sophisticated like the app on my phone that I’m currently using. For both of us, tracking is absolutely essential: my daughter needs to record what she ate and how it impacts her mood, I want to find out how my diet impacts my energy levels.

The simple piece of paper doesn’t focus on metrics. We could record how much of everything she ate and look up the nutritional information and track those by hand. However, we’re looking for more qualitative data—she ate ice cream, and the next day she had several melt-downs. Or she didn’t. We’re just trying to establish simple cause and effect, and the more black-and-white terms of this way of tracking is sufficient.

The app is all about metrics. I can keep track of how much protein I’ve eaten, down to the gram. I know how much sodium I’ve consumed, and how much sugar and saturated fat and fiber. Most dangerously for me, I can also keep track of the calories.

Why do I say ‘dangerously’? After all, calories-in vs calories-out is the best way to lose weight. Isn’t it?

I have a few reasons. First, my goal isn’t weight loss, my goal is increasing my energy level. The hypothesis I’m operating under is that keeping my protein and carbohydrate consumption below a certain percentage of my entire diet will allow me to have more energy, specifically in the early afternoon when, since high school, I’ve always sort of collapsed and fallen asleep. The amount of total calories doesn’t matter, in this case; what matters is what percent of those calories comes from fat, protein, and carbohydrates. In fact, I know that consuming too few calories is extremely detrimental to me. I don’t respond well to cutting my calories, regardless of what is ‘supposed’ to happen.

Most apps place the focus on calories, with the macro-nutrient breakdown (carbohydrates, protein, and fat, also known as ‘macros’) given is interesting information but certainly not the center of attention. I’ve not found any apps that have the primary emphasis on macros (but I’d love to find one). Some apps will allow you to set a macro goal, but calorie intake is still front and center.

In essence, when the app places calories front and center, the emphasis is always going to be on weight loss. Our culture being what it is, it is very, very hard to move our eyes away from that goal. I can’t always forget about it, and I’ve been working on it for many years. And by thinking about weight loss when that isn’t my goal can derail the choices I’m making about my actual goal. I’d rather have more energy than be skinny, honestly, but keeping that in mind when an app is telling me I have to stop eating because I’ve hit an arbitrary number is very difficult.

The other reason is that the idea of tracking calories is, at best, more complicated than simply calories-in, calories-out. Our metabolism is an extremely sophisticated interplay of various factors, and our weight is reflective of a great deal more than simply how many calories we choose to consume vs how active we choose to be. (Clearly a topic for another day.)

I have a couple ways that I resolve that tension between the need to track to figure out my macro-nutrient ratios, and the need to avert my eyes from the big, flashing ‘CALORIES ARE EVERYTHING’ sign. Sometimes I simply set the calorie goal way higher than what I know I will eat, and allow my consumption to be what it is.

Sometimes I adjust the goal on the fly, to reflect what I’m actually eating. Did I eat, say, 2000 calories today? Good, then I’ll set my goal for 2000. Now am I eating 2400 calories? Okay, change the goal again.

Finally, when I’m really feeling on my game, I’ll just let the calorie goal be what it is and ignore it. But I’m always aware of what my brain is doing with that information, and if I’m finding that I’m obsessing about that number, I switch things up so that it isn’t an issue any more.

And then I get back to focusing on the aspect of tracking that really is important to me: does this food, in these proportions, make me feel full of energy? Because that’s so much more important to me than what size jeans I wear.

Be Aware: Decaf Coffee Still Contains Caffeine

I thought I could drink decaf coffee with no chance of caffeine addiction. That would be wrong.

Earlier this year, I weaned myself off of regular coffee over the course of about three months. I did this by reducing the amount of ground coffee I used to make my daily cup(s) by about a half teaspoon every three days. It left my with a slight headache on the second day of each three-day cycle, but not the incapacitating pain of going cold turkey.

Now I allow myself a little regular coffee every week, no more than two cups, often just one, but unlimited decaf coffee. After all, it’s decaf. It has some caffeine left in it, they say, but I figured it must be pretty small if it’s labeled ‘decaffeinated’. I also assumed that it must not be addictive and I wouldn’t have any negative effects from drinking it.

That assumption, I discovered yesterday, was absolutely wrong.

The headache started around noon, just like a caffeine headache. It was really intense and made me sick to my stomach, just like a caffeine headache. All I wanted to do was lie down in a dark room with a cold washcloth over my eyes, just like a caffeine headache. Taking a pain pill didn’t touch it, just like a caffeine headache.

But it couldn’t be a caffeine headache, because I wasn’t drinking caffeinated coffee. Wasn’t I?

I didn’t put it together until about three o’clock (also just like a caffeine headache). Too late to go grab a cup of coffee if I expected to sleep at night.

Finally, I remembered the little caveat about decaf still containing caffeine, and that I hadn’t had any coffee, regular or decaf, all day. It must be a caffeine headache, as incredible as that sounded to me.

Sure enough, once I got home I made myself a cup of (decaf) coffee, and the headache lightened up considerably.

There is plenty on the internet about the caffeine content of various drinks, but the articles all seem to have the same source: a chart posted on the Mayo Clinic website.

The Mayo Clinic website states that the caffeine content of coffee, both regular and decaf, is affected by where the beans come from, how they are processed, and how the coffee itself is prepared. The range for an 8 oz cup is as follows:

regular coffee 95-200 mg
decaf coffee 2-12 mg

They also list more beverages:

black tea 24-48 mg
cola 24-46 mg

I know that tea and pop are both addictive to me and affect my sleep, so it seems reasonable that decaf, which could have as much as half the caffeine of either of those, might have similar effects on me.

So here I am; after spending all that time, just a few months ago, weaning myself off of regular coffee, I’ve accidentally addicted myself to decaf coffee. Presumably dealing with this new addiction will be easier than the original one, but I’m annoyed that I have to do it at all.

And a bit annoyed with myself that I made assumptions about what I’m consuming again: wishfully pretending that, since I enjoy it, it will be just fine for me with no negative consequences.

Food Diary Reprise

A while ago, I decided to help my daughter keep track of what she was eating by having her take pictures of her meals and snacks. It was an immediate failure: she had no interest in doing it and I kept forgetting to remind her.

I looked up printable food diaries for kids, but they seemed to be geared toward other focuses, rather than our need to correlate consumption to symptoms. Some were pretty, but ultimately not what we needed. It was fairly easy to print up my own, with a space for the date, and then three columns: time, food, and notes. We keep a stack of them in the kitchen, and I try very, very hard to remember to have her fill them out.

We’re not perfect, but getting better and more consistent. This method, low-tech as it is, is more interesting for her than taking the pictures, although I could imagine that a different kid would be bored or overwhelmed by the need to take notes but excited by taking pictures. As I am trying to nail down the correlation between dairy and her anxiety, having good records will, with luck, help me to see what’s going on.

Dairy? Out It Goes.

My current nutritional focus with my oldest daughter is to eliminate her extreme anxiety through her diet. We are following Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s GAPS diet which seems to be working well to reduce the anxiety. Also, deviations (such as eating tortilla chips) definitely cause an increase.

She still has some anxiety, however, that hasn’t completely faded. Or, rather, the anxiety went away and has come back. I’m thinking that that is because she’s been eating an increasing amount of cheese, although we’ve eliminated most dairy at this point.

It’s frustrating, trying to figure out what’s going on inside her body. I can’t do anything but experiment: hypothesize, test, observe. I make a guess about what’s affecting her, tweak our diet to remove the potential villain, and watch what happens (and watch to make sure she’s actually eating only what she’s supposed to).

I was just reading that dairy tends to be frequently be cross-reactive in people with gluten-sensitivity, meaning that the body will react to the dairy as it would to gluten. Furthermore, I know that I react to dairy by getting headaches (my generic sensitivity symptom), so she is likely to be sensitive to it as well.

Right now, I have some cheese in the house, butter, and no other dairy. I think my plan is to let Craig, mainly, use up the cheese and not replace it with more once it’s gone. I honestly don’t know about the butter. My general practice is to test out the ideal situation first, which would mean eating butter but no other dairy products. I think we’ll spend a week or two using butter as usual while avoiding everything else. With luck, we will see her anxiety go back down again fairly rapidly.

Name Changes Are Sometimes Key for Alternative Baking Success: healthy chocolate brownie cake vs honey toffee chocolate fudge bake

I made chocolate cake for my husband’s birthday last weekend. Actually, it wasn’t chocolate cake, it was brownies baked in a round spring-form pan. And I made substitutions. I replaced the all-purpose flour with almond flour, and the sugar with honey, and the butter with coconut oil. The only things that were untouched were the eggs, the cocoa, and the vanilla.

It was, shall we say, not quite what it should have been. As a chocolate brownie cake, it was a complete failure. The coconut oil ran out, which I had worried about so luckily placed the spring-form pan on a half-sheet tray. The honey seemed to not incorporate homogeneously and so seemed to form a sort of sticky layer at the bottom. The almond flour remained gritily apparent in the final product. As I was cutting into it, I was extremely grateful that it was just the immediate family who were subjected to it, and not some of the more distant relatives who might have been present.

The thing was, though, it actually tasted pretty good. We ate it with ice cream made with honey and coconut milk and eggs and vanilla (which also had issues), and both the cake and the ice cream benefited from the combination.

In Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, Brian Wansink discusses psychological research into how people eat, particularly when they aren’t paying attention to how they are eating. Among the many interesting findings in the book, he says that what something is called matters. Something with a specific, evocative name, like Tuscan Roast Chicken will be more eagerly consumed than the blander Roast Chicken. My experience with my own kids certainly bears this out—they are far more interested in foods that I take the time to name imaginatively than in fish, beans, and carrots. That’s half the reason we have Sushi Sundays and Macho Nacho Mondays

I started adjusting the name of that birthday cake as we ate it, and it gradually became honey toffee chocolate fudge bake. Two things happened, immediately. It sounded more interesting to everyone: honey toffee and chocolate fudge? Yes, please. As Wansink found, the evocative name spruced up the dish itself.

But the name change also managed everyone’s expectations about what we were eating. Chocolate brownie cake should turn out a certain way, if they don’t, they are a huge disappointment, no matter how good they might, objectively, be. But honey toffee chocolate fudge bake, something new and unknown but with familiar elements in the name, doesn’t carry those expectations. In fact, since this is the only honey toffee chocolate fudge bake that we had ever had, it clearly is supposed to be exactly as it is. And can be judged accordingly.

My dad urged me to write down exactly what I did, so I could make it again. That’s a great sign of baking success. Even if it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to.


We attended the kids’ piano recital a couple of weeks back, and at the end there were cookies. For the last two months we’ve been deliberately choosing to eat much less sugar, so it was a little shock to have the cookies. We let the kids eat what they wanted, knowing it was relatively limited in scope. And my husband and I ate what we wanted as well.

The cookies were… sweet. We brought homemade meringues which were little sugar bombs themselves. The store-bought cookies had that ‘store-bought’ flavor to them, and the sweetness, but little else. They were kind of boring, really, but difficult to stop eating. I had maybe four or five altogether, although the process of eating them in a social setting—go up to the table, get a cookie, walk away, eat it, mill around for a few minutes, go get another—wasn’t conducive to knowing how many I ate.

When we got home, I immediately fell asleep on the sofa for an hour. Not unusual, since I never function well in the early afternoon, but it was almost four o’clock at that point; later than usual.

Dinner was barbecued chicken and a Cesar salad: it was such a relief to have something savory after all that sugar. We all seemed to enjoy it much more than we normally would have.

This seems to be a change, after so much time eating lower sugar foods. Normally, I wouldn’t have even noticed the sweetness, although I might still have needed the nap. Stepping back from it makes it easier to notice not just the sweetness, but also the way it has nothing behind it. Just that taste. And it seems like it’s not really worth it so much anymore. I’d rather eat real food, with nutrients that make me feel good.

Springtime Menu

Dinner last night was grilled chicken breasts and warm bacon spinach salad, with sauerkraut on the side. Some evenings we have a spread of vegetables, with many to choose from, but especially in the springtime, it’s nice to keep it simple with just a salad. Since there was bacon involved, everyone at least tried the salad.

We had a dessert as well, Natasha Campbell-McBride’s Russian Custard (egg yolks whisked with honey), mixed with some coconut cream and defrosted sweet cherries. It helped balance the lower fat in the main course, and was tasty while not being excessively sweet.