My name is Rickus Hendrik Delport and I am a South African living in Cornwall. I come from a long line of meat eaters, and life would not be complete without biltong, braaivleis, mielies, and rugby. I thought vegetarians and vegans were a loony bunch of extremists. As I was to learn later, it is quite possible some people are born to be vegetarian, thanks to their genes.
In the Delport household, we divided our plate into the four food groups: red meat, eggs, bacon, and chicken. We were proud to be carnivores, just as nature intended. My father then had a heart attack and was lucky to survive. The doctors told us we must change our diet and lifestyle. We smiled and nodded politely and ignored his advice. We were too apathetic to adapt, but sometimes we are forced to change when we least expect it.
We were having burgers at the local fast food outlet, arguing about Brexit, when my beef burger tasted horrible. My friend tried my burger, and it was fine. I thought my imagination was playing tricks on me. I remember shrugging my shoulders and forgetting about the incident. I was looking forward to dinner and was not expecting surprises. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The smell of the sizzling steak in the pan made me nauseous, and after one bite, I bolted to the toilet to vomit. I was sick for days.
The change from carnivore to vegetarian took roughly a month and was challenging. I had frequent dizzy spells, and my weight dropped by a third during that time. My condition improved as I got used to eating plant protein and a greater variety of greens and fruits. I was puzzled by my sudden dislike of meat and wanted answers. We are what we eat, and I was curious about the link between diet and genetics. I surfed the internet to search for the latest research about food, health, and genes and found a study by Cornell University.
A team of scientists at Cornell University found some populations groups have a genetic adaptation to following a vegetarian diet. The study centers on the FADS gene cluster, and its role in converting short chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (SCPUFAs) to long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs). Fatty acids are essential for proper brain development and are important in fighting inflammation. People with a version or allele of the FADS gene are better able to synthesize long-chain fatty from short chain fatty acids.
Plant-based fats found in vegetable oils, seeds and nuts are rich in short-chain fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6. These short-chain fatty acids have to be converted to LCPUFAs such as EPA, DH, and AA to be used by the body. Animal-based fats from meat, eggs, and fish, eggs already contain long chain PUFAs, and the body can readily use them.
There are two versions of FADS gene that determines how well the SCPUFA is converted to LCPUFA. The “T” version allows for efficient bio-ability, and people do not have to rely on animal sources of PUFA to meet their dietary needs. People carrying the “C” version have low conversion capacity and need to get their PUFA from animal sources specifically fish and fish oil supplements. The optimum ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is between 1:1 and 4:1. The average Western diet has a ratio of 16:1 or higher, leading to an increase in inflammation, heart disease, and diabetes.
Scientists believe this genetic adaptation arose with the transition to agriculture in southern Europe roughly 8,000 years ago. The Inuit of Greenland, who have a seafood diet, have a different version of the FADS gene. I suspect my body processed meat-derived omega fatty acids differently, which made me feel unwell. I also reduced my consumption of margarines, vegetable oils, corn, and wheat. Before becoming a vegan, I had joint pain, rashes, high cholesterol, and I felt tired and moody. People who thrive on a vegan diet may have the right version of the FADS gene.
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