Eating a healthy amount of greens could have an effect on genes linked to heart disease, according to a new study.
Researchers from Canada's McMaster and McGill universities found that eating fruits and vegetables may actually change a gene variant, called 9p21, that is one of the strongest predictors for heart disease.
"We found that in people with this high-risk gene who consumed a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, their risk came down to that of people who don't have that gene," said Dr. Sonia Anand, a lead author and professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University.
The researchers analyzed the diets of more than 27,000 people from different parts of the world who were already enrolled in two separate studies looking at heart disease.
"Despite having a high genetic risk for heart disease, a healthy lifestyle can actually turn off the gene," said Anand. She also said it's not yet clear exactly how diet affects the gene.
The study participants who lowered their risk through their diet ate at least two servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Raw fruits and vegetables played the biggest role in lowering risk, Anand said.
Experts not involved in the Canadian research say the research provides more evidence that there is a strong gene-environment interaction involved in heart disease and other conditions.
"This may be true for other issues. There may be genetic factors that make a patient more sensitive to salt and develop hypertension, whereas another person can eat large amounts of salt and maintain normal pressure," said Dr. Carl "Chip" Lavie, medical director of Cardiac Rehabilitation and Prevention at the John Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans.
"Other studies have also shown that those who eat healthier diets tend to offset the risk that same chromosome places on them," said Dr. Phil Ragno, director of cardiovascular health and wellness at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y.
"We know that despite public health recommendations to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day, only a minority of people take the advice seriously," said Anand. "Genetic information may be a motivation to help people take the public health recommendation seriously."
But she added that this research doesn't mean that people should go out and get genetically screened for the presence of 9p21 variants. Screening is costly and not routinely done.
The role of genetics is an expanding area of medical research, and experts believe the next few years will bring new health recommendations based on people's genetic makeup.
"This points the way toward the future and where we're going in terms of understanding the genetics of heart disease," said Dr. William O'Neill, cardiology professor and executive dean of clinical affairs at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. "Maybe in the next few years, we may be able to do specific gene scans on individual patients and if we find the patients who have genetic high risk, we really want to concentrate on modifying risk by targeting smoking, cholesterol adn diet."
And that could be reassuring for many people with genetic susceptibility to certain conditions.
"We often think of genetic factors as being unmodifiable factors," said Anand. "But lifestyle factors can actually change the genes."