Just when the old adage "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" seems to lose any real meaning behind that condescending rhyme, science steps in to revive the proverb with relevance. While you can't change your genes, new research suggests that you can turn them off by spending more time in the produce aisle with Granny Smith.
According to a new study out of McMaster and McGill Universities led by an international team of scientists, eating fresh fruits and vegetables can help turn off one of the most potent genetic associations with heart disease, a gene more affectionately known in the medical world as Chromosome 9p21.
Through one of the largest gene-diet interaction studies ever conducted on cardiovascular disease, the researchers analyzed more than 27,000 people from various ethnicities around the world and the effects their diet had on the 9p21 gene.
"We often think of genetic factors as being unmodifiable factors," Dr. Sonia Anand, a joint principal investigator of the study and professor of medicine and epidemiology at the university, told ABC News. "But lifestyle factors can actually change the genes."
The results of the global retrospective supported the "five a day" recommendation, finding that diets high in fresh fruits and vegetables actually mitigated the effect of 9p21, regardless of the individual’s genetic disposition. Individuals with the high risk genotype could reduce their risk factor to the same level as those with the low risk genotype when following a "prudent diet", one composed of mainly raw fruits, berries, and vegetables.
"What this study seems to imply is that you shouldn’t throw in the towel if you have a family history or are at risk for heart disease because healthy living with a healthy diet, in addition to other lifestyle changes such as exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight, can take away from the risk that genes give you,” Beth Abramson, a cardiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto who was not involved in the research, told The Canadian Press.
This is all welcomed news as in the US alone, coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death, with stroke, another cardiovascular disease, ranking third on the list of killers. Regardless if you have the high risk gene or not, previous research shows that every additional serving of fruits or vegetables can bring about a four percent decrease in the rate of heart disease related deaths.
"Future research is necessary to understand the mechanism of this interaction, which will shed light on the underlying metabolic processes that the 9p21 gene is involved in," the study's lead author, Dr. Ron Do, notes in the joint university press release.
Meanwhile, Anand advises consumption of "more than five fruits or vegetables" daily to promote good health.
So in the interim, consider making that "apple a day" an additional serving, rather than your one and only.