Q: Can the food I eat affect my descendants’ genes?
A: Maybe. A recent study suggests that the same vitamins in spinach that perform instant wonders for Popeye’s biceps might pack longer lasting effects, such as dictating the hair color and health of future generations.
Last November, a study led by David Martin, an oncologist at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California, tested whether a mouse’s diet alone can affect its descendants. The researchers fed meals high in minerals and vitamins – such as B12, which fortifies leafy greens – to pregnant mice that have a gene that makes their fur blonde and also increase the likelihood that they will grow obese and develop diabetes and cancer. On the new diet, the mice produced brown-haired offspring that were also less vulnerable to disease. Even when those mice were denied the supplements, their offspring retained the improved health and still grew dark fur coats.
Martin’s study isn’t the first to note this type of generation-spanning phenomenon. In 2002, Swedish researchers dug through century-old records and determined that a man’s diet at the onset of puberty affected his grandson’s vulnerability to diabetes. The study tracked 303 men, and those with an abundant supply of food were 4 times as likely to have grandchildren die of diabetes. Though far from exhaustive, the study indicates that genes are more susceptible to outside forces than has been commonly believed.