By Jennifer Coates, DVM
It's easy to admit that people and pets are healthier when they eat nutritious food. What's exciting is that researchers are finding that well-balanced nutrition may even hold the key to how genes are expressed in the body.
What is Nutrigenomics?
Nutrigenomics (shorthand for nutritional genomics) is the study of how nutrients found in food can influence gene expression. Genes are essentially information found within DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) which are inherited from our parents — and our pets from their parents. To be put to practical use in the body, this information needs to be converted into proteins.
By upregulating some genes and downregulating others, the body can alter the levels of the various proteins that are being produced at any given time. This process can be either beneficial or detrimental to the well being of our pets. For example, if all the genes that create inflammation are turned up high and remain that way, problems related to excess inflammation will follow.
Some pet food manufacturers are utilizing this information to formulate diets containing the nutrients that modify an individual's gene expression to be more healthy (i.e., turn down the genes that cause inflammation) and help improve the quality of life of pets who consume that food.
Can Nutrigenomics Help My Overweight Pet?
One major area nutrigenomics researchers are focusing on is pet obesity.
"By measuring traditional biomarkers and using genomics," says veterinary nutrition technician Kara M. Burns, "we may gain a better understanding of the mechanisms involved that can enable us to aid in the prevention and/or early treatment of obesity and obesity-related diseases."
Take overweight or obese dogs, for example. According to Todd Towell, DVM, MS, DACVIM, of Hill's Pet Nutrition, there is a "huge difference in gene expression between dogs that are obese and those that are lean."
Using nutrigenomics research pet food manufacturers can also better find the right combination of ingredients that help change the unhealthy metabolism of the obese pet by changing their gene expression to look more like the gene expression of a lean pet. In essence, it's like overweight pets going from having a fat storing metabolism to a fat burning metabolism.
It is, however, vital to ask your veterinarian about what's best for your pet. He or she is an excellent source of information about what could benefit your pet's health and well-being the most, including new scientific discoveries and therapeutic options. Every day we pick what nutrients our dogs and cats will ingest, and choosing a high quality, nutritionally balanced pet food will have a huge effect on your pet's waistline and well-being.
Clinical Nutrition — The Buzz on Nutrigenomics Kara Burns. Veterinary Technician 2008 August, Vol 29, No 8.
An introduction to nutrigenomics developments and trends. Siân B. Astley. Genes Nutr. 2007 October; 2(1): 11–13.
Nutrigenomics and Beyond: Informing the Future - Workshop Summary (2007) Food and Nutrition Board
The effects of weight loss on gene expression in dogs (abstract). Yamka R, Friesen KG, Gao X, et al. J Vet Intern Med 2008;22:741.