Plant-based diets are becoming increasingly popular because of their positive effect on personal health, environmental wellness, and ethical consumerism. Although many of us choose to go plant-based for our own personal reasons, could there be a genetic component strengthening our craving for more fruits, vegetables, grains, and rice?
A group of researchers from Cornell recently conducted a study on the possibility a vegetarian gene. The idea of the 'marine diet' found among the Inuit of Greenland sparked the interest in discovering a gene for the preference of primarily plant-based diets. The relationship between genes and diet also opens the door to the possibility of structuring personalized diets based off of genetic information. Knowing that my body is genetically designed to metabolize certain foods better than others might drive me to eat in a way that utilizes these adaptations in order to live my most healthful life.
The vegetarian allele originally evolved in populations that consumed a generally plant-based diet such as India, Africa, and parts of Eastern Asia. Those with this adaptation have an increased ability in processing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fats are easily converted into compounds that are essential for things like early brain development, blood pressure regulation, response to inflammation, and immune health. This genetic variation was postivley selected for in these populations over hundreds of years.
The frequencies of these alleles were analyzed in 234 vegetarian Indians and 311 Americans. It was confirmed that the vegetarian allele occurred in 68 percent of the Indians and only 18 percent of the Americans. The 1,000 Genomes Project similarly found the vegetarian allele occurs in 70 percent of South Asians, 53 percent of Africans, 29 percent of East Asians, and 17 percent of Europeans.