Nutritional Genomics and the Role of the Mediterranean Diet in Cardiovascular Disease

Early research in nutritional genomics shows the Mediterranean diet and consumption of olive oil fosters positive molecular changes in the body.

May. 4, 2016
By Jedha Dening

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A dietary pat­tern is made up of dif­fer­ing amounts of foods and bev­er­ages that all work col­lec­tively and in syn­ergy to pro­vide over­all health ben­e­fits. Rather than look­ing at sin­gle nutri­ents as solu­tions to health prob­lems, researchers have begun explor­ing the sum of com­po­nents offered by var­i­ous dietary pat­terns. Since an individual’s dietary pat­tern is an envi­ron­men­tal ele­ment that they are exposed to each day, yet it is within their con­trol to alter, a dietary pat­tern could be the most crit­i­cal choice for pre­vent­ing chronic lifestyle dis­eases and pro­mot­ing healthy aging.

The Mediterranean diet (MedDiet) con­tains foods that are high in phy­to­chem­i­cals, namely fruits, veg­eta­bles and the abun­dant daily con­sump­tion of olive oil (OO), which have all been shown to reduce symp­toms and pre­vent the risk of hyper­ten­sion, cho­les­terol, stroke and car­dio­vas­cu­lar risk. The addi­tion of OO, con­tain­ing more than 36 phe­no­lic com­pounds, makes the MedDiet pat­tern very unique and con­tributes sig­nif­i­cantly to its over­all health attrib­utes.
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However, although the MedDiet is one of the widest stud­ied dietary pat­terns, the mech­a­nisms under­ly­ing its ben­e­fi­cial effects on health are still largely unknown, which is where nutri­tional genomics stud­ies are begin­ning to assist. Nutritional genomics is a rel­a­tively new field of research that includes nutri­ge­net­ics, nutri-genomics, nutri-metabolomics, and nutri-miRomics. This broad new area of research explores how nutri­ents and dietary pat­terns inter­act with our genome and influ­ence our genetic dis­po­si­tion.

A recent review, pub­lished in Nutrients, 2016, aimed to assess cur­rent knowl­edge on the MedDiet in terms of nutri­tional genomics mech­a­nisms that could help explain the MedDiet’s ben­e­fits in pre­vent­ing car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease (CVD).


Genetic pre­dis­po­si­tion is aris­ing as a pre­dom­i­nant area of nutri­tional research to help iden­tify dif­fer­ent sub­groups that may ben­e­fit from more inten­sive dietary inter­ven­tion. It has been shown that dif­fer­ent geno­types respond to dif­fer­ent dietary pat­terns. Therefore, nutri­ge­net­ics looks at gain­ing a deeper under­stand­ing of the mech­a­nisms asso­ci­ated with indi­vid­ual vari­abil­ity.

For exam­ple, risk fac­tors for CVD asso­ci­ated with genetic pre­dis­po­si­tion include fast­ing glu­cose, total cho­les­terol, LDL cho­les­terol, and triglyc­eride con­cen­tra­tions in some indi­vid­u­als.


Quite incred­i­bly, it has been shown that these genet­i­cally pre­dis­posed traits could be atten­u­ated by adher­ence to the MedDiet. This gene-diet inter­ac­tion was also shown to influ­ence telom­ere length, a bio­marker of bio­log­i­cal aging.

It is now becom­ing appar­ent that healthy dietary pat­terns such as the MedDiet trig­ger var­i­ous responses to genes. The researchers stat­ing, Glycaemia, lipid pro­file, stroke inci­dence, telom­eres length, and emo­tional eat­ing behav­ior are some of the char­ac­ter­is­tics that have been seen to be affected by genetic pre­dis­po­si­tion and adher­ence to the Mediterranean diet.”


This area of research sug­gests that nutri­ents and dietary pat­terns influ­ence direct gene expres­sion or through induc­ing epi­ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tions.

It’s sug­gested that the high lev­els of antiox­i­dants in the MedDiet pro­duce its pro­tec­tive action, as antiox­i­dants have been shown to mod­u­late gene expres­sion via down reg­u­lat­ing both oxi­da­tion and inflam­ma­tion. More recently it has also been dis­cov­ered that diet can directly and indi­rectly influ­ence the immune sys­tem.

In rela­tion to CVD, extra vir­gin olive oil (EVOO) has been shown to help mod­u­late ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis, renin-angiotensin, nitric oxide and angiopoi­etin sig­nal­ing.


According to the study, Metabolomics aims to study the entire small mol­e­cule (metabo­lite) com­ple­ment of a system….[In the human body] a huge vari­ety of metabo­lites exist, includ­ing pep­tides, lipids, nucleotides, car­bo­hy­drates, amino acids, and car­bo­hy­drates.”

At this early stage of research, many new nutri­tional dis­cov­er­ies are being made due to metabolomics. For exam­ple, being able to assess dietary pat­terns based on uri­nary metabolome pro­file, test­ing adher­ence to and results of par­tic­u­lar dietary pat­terns, and estab­lish­ing bio­mark­ers that could offer an addi­tional level of nutri­tional per­son­al­iza­tion based on gut micro­biota.

At this stage, there aren’t any defin­i­tive con­clu­sions but from what has been stud­ied, the MedDiet influ­ences all out­comes of metabolomics in a pos­i­tive direc­tion.


Nutri-miRomics is a sub­set of nutri­tional genomics that looks at microRNAs and their func­tion. According to the study microRNA have emerged as the major reg­u­la­tors of a great num­ber of phys­i­o­log­i­cal processes includ­ing cell dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, apop­to­sis, and lipid metab­o­lism, and they have been reported to reg­u­late glu­cose home­osta­sis, cell func­tion, and insulin sig­nal­ing.”

One of the major func­tions of microRNAs is to silence their tar­get genes, influ­enc­ing the above-men­tioned reg­u­la­tors and hav­ing out­comes on over­all health and dis­ease. For exam­ple, microRNAs have emerged as epi­ge­netic reg­u­la­tors in CVD.

Nutritional genomics is a rel­a­tively new and com­plex area of research that is also incred­i­bly excit­ing. Being able to study var­i­ous aspects of nutri­tion-related mol­e­c­u­lar mech­a­nisms opens up many pos­si­bil­i­ties for gain­ing knowl­edge and under­stand­ing about human biol­ogy and using dietary inter­ven­tions on a more indi­vid­ual basis. Early evi­dence sug­gests that a MedDiet and EVOO both influ­ence some of these mol­e­c­u­lar mech­a­nisms in a pos­i­tive way.

Being that the MedDiet is one of the most exten­sively stud­ied dietary pat­terns, nutri­tional genomics may even­tu­ally clear up some of the ambi­gu­ity sur­round­ing the asso­ci­a­tions and results found in pre­vi­ous stud­ies.

Certainly, there is still much research to be done but the future of nutri­tional sci­ence looks very excit­ing, with the abil­ity to estab­lish opti­mal doses” of dietary pat­terns based on an indi­vid­u­al’s genetic pre­dis­po­si­tion and other intri­cate fac­tors.

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