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The Digestion of Carbohydrates

Digestion and Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates can be particularly pesky—and it’s their cumbersome nature that may be behind the increase in global obesity. Each of us carries at least one AMY1 gene, which allows us to digest foodstuffs high in starch (think carbs). The original school of thought preached that we each carried 2 copies of the gene; research has recently found that number to be highly variable, however.

AMY1 is responsible for allowing us to produce a salivary enzyme known as amylase: a key player in starch digestion. As our meals have shifted towards a starch-heavy fair, we’ve selected for more copies—but not all of us have hopped on the genetic bandwagon.

Amylase is only one enzyme, AMY1 only one gene, what does it matter if you’re only carrying 1 copy?

Well, researchers at Imperial College London looked at the gene variables of citizens from Singapore, Sweden, France, and the UK. They found that the fewer copies you had, the higher your risk of obesity.

In fact, a person with less than 4 copies of the gene was 8 times more likely to be obese than their counterparts with 9 copies or more. With each additional copy, a person’s chances of becoming obese decreased by 20%. Those with fewer copies also tended to be glucose resistant, so the gene’s presence (or lack thereof) may also be connected to the onset of other metabolic disorders like diabetes. This then is one instance where more really is better.

Genetics, Amylase, and Carbohydrates

So what’s going on here? Does the genetic card you’re holding get worse and worse throughout generations? Do the genes get fired on with modern implications like processed carbohydrates, sedentary behavior, leaky gut, and so on?

[highlight]While genetics can be an excellent predictor of the shape that we’ll find ourselves in, it certainly isn’t the be-all-end-all determining factor of our health and well-being.[/highlight]

Food is important, not just what we put into our bodies but what our mothers put into them as well. It turns out pregnant women’s diets have epigenetic effects on their offspring—meaning how they eat can cause heritable changes to your DNA structure.

If a mother happens to create a hyperglycemic environment during pregnancy by consuming processed foods and sugars, the environment in utero has a pronounced effect on the child’s “adiposity and metabolism”, according to Dr. Toni I. Pollin of the American Diabetes Association.

His research found that maternal nutrition could trigger a fetal epigenetic event that led to an increased chance of obesity and the onset of metabolic syndromes like diabetes. The good doctor concluded that the findings bolstered the idea that nutritional counseling during pregnancy was far more important than previously thought. Malnutrition has an effect too.

In my article Good Parenting at the Genetic Level: How your Diet effects your Family I mention that famine in the Netherlands caused people born during the period to have a lifetime’s worth of health problems—all because their mothers didn’t have access to adequate nutrition while pregnant.

The good news about an epigenetic effect? Unlike changes to the sequence of your DNA, they can be changed or reversed under certain conditions or in certain environments. You can come back from the bad genetic cards you’ve been dealt—with proper nutrition.

Reducing or eliminating your processed foods (especially if you suspect that you may be in short supply of the AMY1 gene) is one step of the Wild Mediterranean diet you can adopt.

Digestive Health 101

Gut health is also key. As I noted before in my article “Gut Bacteria: The Unsung Hero”, there are specific strains of bacteria that aid in the digestion of carbohydrates—if we eat to cultivate their proliferation. “Simplified gut flora”—or flora we cultivate by eating large amounts of processed foods—has also been linked to obesity. If you think your cards are stacked against you, eating diversely and healthfully can aid in counteracting your chances of gaining weight in more ways than you originally assumed. To kick start gut bacterial diversity, I recommend imbibing probiotics or fermented veggies (think kimchi) to introduce new strains holistically—once there you can upkeep them by eating a variety of simple, healthful one-ingredient foods.

The power of gut bacteria is incredible—as such it’s time we bulk up those strains! To do so we need to stop focusing on calorie restriction and start focusing on what we’re actually bothering to chow down on. As I mentioned before probiotic is the way to go (and not the powder, whole foods are best); it can be as simple as eating more yogurt or trying sauerkraut (or the aforementioned kimchi!).

Genetics are important, there are no bones about it—but they don’t have to be some harbinger of metabolic doom. You can take your phenotypic destiny and alter it; there is a variety of ways to go about this.

Finally, as a diet for a lifetime, the Wild Mediterranean approach takes the best of several worlds and melds them together for optimal gut health, and ultimately, optimal overall health. It’s often said that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”—ancestral eating like the foods consumed in the Mediterranean diet is time tested and time approved, so if you are what you eat—eat well and be well, just like your ancestors and their diet intended!

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