Research shows you are what your ancestors ate

Parental diet and physical activity levels are critical factors in the prevalence of obesity and metabolic disorders such as diabetes not only among their offspring but also their children’s children and beyond, according to researchers at East Carolina University.

Studies at ECU have shown epigenetic factors — those that are passed down in addition to DNA — such as ancestral diet, can influence offspring feeding behavior along with changes in activity, triglyceride levels and mitochondrial density in the brain. They also found the generational differences are associated with changes in sets of proteins in the brain proteome and microRNA, the bioregulators that can determine how genes function.

Their most recent findings, under review by the journal Scientific Reports, together with the familial clustering of obesity, may indicate children’s food preferences and eating habits could be hard-wired into their brains — that ancestral nutrition could be a critical factor in feeding behavior.

“Something is transmitted from parents to offspring making them more predisposed to obesity or other metabolic disorders,” said Alexander Murashov, a professor of physiology at the Brody School of Medicine. “We don’t know the mechanism. But it may be changes at mitochondrial level.”

“If we find the markers and find the mechanism, then maybe we can correct the problem in the children,” he added.

Murashov is collaborating with Darrell Neufer, professor of physiology and director of the East Carolina Diabetes and Obesity Institute; Kelsey Fisher-Wellman, assistant professor of physiology at ECU; and Krishna Bhat, professor of molecular medicine at the University of South Florida. Their research has been funded by grants totaling more than $1.5 million from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

The team is focusing on paternal effects not only of diet but also exercise and is finding offspring are showing metabolic impacts as far as four generations down the line. Now they’re working on finding the genetic markers that could help them identify which parents may have children at risk for becoming overweight.

Metabolism also plays a role. Eons ago, using one’s calories wisely was a good thing. In today’s calorie-rich environment, that’s not necessarily true.

“It goes back to the thrifty gene hypothesis that’s been around a long time, where humans evolved to be as thrifty with their energy reserves as possible,” Neufer said. “So the simple way to put it — humans evolved to be as efficient as possible because one never knew where and when that next meal was coming from. Fast forward to the last 50-100 years, those evolutionary offspring are very energy efficient but are now in an environment where high-calorie food
is abundant. As a result, they gain weight faster and develop insulin resistance sooner.”

On top of that, studies showed paternal exercise can induce generational transmission of thrifty gene metabolic traits to offspring.

Their studies are published in FASEB in 2016 and 2020, and the latest is in preprint in Research Square.