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.
See more: Olive Oil Health Benefits
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.