You might not think your pantry should have anything in common with that of your great-great-great-grandparents—after all, they probably weren’t knocking back adaptogenic lattes back in the day.
But according to Christine Dionese, your ancestors’ eating habits could provide valuable insight into the foods that are best for you. As an integrative epigenetic health and food therapy specialist, one of the first questions she asks her clients is where their family roots lie. She then uses that information to inform her dietary recommendations. (If you sign up for flavor ID, the personalized meal delivery service she’s soft-launching in Southern California this month, your menus will also be based on that info, among other things.)
Your microbiome, digestive enzyme activity, and even ability to absorb nutrients are all informed by the things your distant relatives ate.
Why does it matter? “Epigenetics—what I specialize in in my consulting practice—is the study of how environmental variables influence our genetic expression,” Dionese says. (It’s a legit and growing field, with researchers from the Cleveland Clinic, Harvard, and UCLA currently exploring the link between diet and DNA.) “Our adapted genes bear the mark of so many epigenetic variables throughout history related to food. When we are aware of our ancestry, we get that much closer to understanding how our genes may have been altered or affected over time.”
As Dionese puts it, your microbiome, digestive enzyme activity, and even ability to absorb nutrients are all informed by the things your distant relatives ate. For instance, she says, if your ancestors lived in Asia—even centuries back—you’d likely thrive on kimchi, soups, and seaweed, and not so much on gluten, meat, and dairy. If your family hailed from the Mediterranean, she says, you’d probably feel better on a diet rich in olive oil, fish, and figs.
There’s also a psychological benefit to eating the types of foods you grew up with—it’s said to help healthy eating habits stick.
There’s also a psychological benefit to eating the types of foods you grew up with—it’s said to help healthy eating habits stick. “[Studies] show that when traditions are observed and foods are kept the same, yet with healthier ingredients, people thrive more than if they completely change their traditional diet,” Dionese says.
You don’t even have to look that far back in order to reap the benefits. “Focusing on key ethnic ingredients that your great-grandmother prepared is always a good start if you don’t know anything else about where you came from,” says Dionese. And if all else fails, the expert adds, you can’t go wrong with veggies. “What we’ve observed in the literature most frequently is that most people across ancestral lines have primarily eaten plants and far less meat than any of us eat today.” Pass the zoodles—topped with an extra scoop of grandma’s red sauce.
Even if your family doesn’t hail from Greece or Italy, following a Mediterranean diet can have major benefits. And here are 10 foods nutritionists wish you ate more of.