Your Genes May Determine if Being a Vegetarian is Right for You

If you’ve ever gotten the impression that certain people feel better as vegetarians than others, there may be something to that. As it turns out, there may be a gene that tells whether someone has adapted to be vegetarian, based on a genetic change in their ancestors.

In a new Cornell study, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, researchers looked into the genes of modern Europeans and the effect that the introduction of farming, and the resulting dietary changes, had on genetic adaptations. In an earlier study by the same Cornell researchers in 2016, they investigated populations in India, Africa and parts of East Asia — in other words, places with historically vegetarian diets. There, the researchers discovered similar patterns in their genes that allowed them to more easily digest plants.

About 12,500 years ago, the Neolithic Revolution, or Agricultural Revolution, occurred. This was the “wide-scale transition of many human cultures from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement.” Before this time, many Europeans’ diets consisted primarily of seafood and animal products, food that they were able to acquire on the move. As the people began to settle down and their lifestyle changed, though, so did what they ate. As they began to plant crops form long-term settlements, they ate a much greater percentage of plant-based foods.

This new study suggests that, through the process of natural selection, the genes of Europeans changed with this adjustment, allowing for European farmers to more easily metabolize plants. More specifically, the relevant gene (FADS1) in this process became more frequent and it produced “enzymes that play a vital role in the biosynthesis of omega-3 and omega-6 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids…[which] are crucial for proper human brain development, controlling inflammation and immune response.” In other words, in order for vegetarians to be able to utilize the nutrients in plant matter, they must have these enzymes. The previous year’s study on long-term vegetarian populations produced the same result.

During the hunter-gatherer period of time, it appears that the opposite version of the same gene was the predominant one. This game is better for those with meat and seafood-based diets, and limits the activity of the enzymes. Once the human diet changed during the Neolithic Revolution, though, the dominance of these genes switched. Kaixiong Ye, a postdoctoral researcher and the paper’s lead author, said “Changing diets instantaneously switched which alleles are advantageous.”

Interestingly, there was actually a difference between northern Europeans and southern Europeans. Northern Europeans had ancestors who included seafood in their diet and drank more milk than southern Europeans, meaning that the people in the south were more reliant on plants to survive. To this day, there is a “gradient in the frequencies of these alleles.”

In the future, it’s hoped that by understanding these genes, nutritionists will be able to pinpoint the most healthy diet for individuals, and “tailor each person’s diet to her or his genome to improve health and prevent disease.”

This study does pose an interesting understanding of how human bodies will, over the course of multiple generations, find their way to better utilize what we have available to us. Then, as now, humans were doing what we do best: we adapted.

Photo credit: Laura Burge, author. Fields in Switzerland

119 comments

Marie W
Marie W24 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Paulo Reeson
Paulo R3 months ago

okay, ty

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Paulo Reeson
Paulo R3 months ago

okay, ty

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Paulo Reeson
Paulo R3 months ago

okay, ty

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Carl R
Carl R4 months ago

Thanks!!!

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Carl R
Carl R4 months ago

Thanks!!!

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Janis K
Janis K5 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Chad A
Chad A5 months ago

Interesting.

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Bill Eagle
Bill Eagle5 months ago

I wonder if this really can be proved?

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Joemar K
Joemar K5 months ago

Thanks

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