— Deborah Kesten, VIP Contributor at Thrive Global

In 2003, researcher Robert Waterland, and Randy Jirtle, a professor of radiation oncology at Duke University, designed a landmark study1 on the emerging new field of epigenetics—which explores how lifestyle (diet, stress, physical activity, sleep, and so on) can reset your genes for wellness…or illness. Indeed, since then, many more studies have linked the power of epigenetics to curtail cancer,2 slow aging,3 and more. But could epigenetics also help in overcoming obesity, Waterland and Jirtle wanted to know?

To find out, the reseachers focused their attention on a particular strain of mice that carry what’s called the Agouti gene. Not only does this mutant gene make Agouti mice obese and ravenous, it also makes them prone to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and in turn, shortened lifespans. 

Can Diet Reset Genes?

Given the life-threatening conditions that Agouti mice inherit, the epigenetic question Waterland and Jirtle wanted to explore was this: Would a mild modification in the diet of Agouti mothers affect the genetic legacy and susceptibility to obesity and other diseases they passed on to their children? If so, it would mean that a subtle nutritional change in the pregnant moms’ diet could have an epigenetic influence on her offspring that was so dramatic it might lead to normal weight, a normal mousy brown coat, a disease-free life, and a normal lifespan.

To find out, Waterland and Jirtle designed their deceptively simple, but groundbreaking, study. Just prior to the mother mice becoming pregnant, the scientists supplemented the mothers’ already-adequate diet with a group of four vitamins that are called methyl donors: folic acid, B12, choline, and betaine. They chose these methyl-rich supplements, because many prior studies had linked this particular methyl chemical group with the power to launch epigenetic changes that switch genes either on or off.1 It’s as if your genes are like the wiring in a house, with the methyl-donating vitamins turning some genes off and others on.

Small Changes, Big Benefits: From Obesity to Normal Weight

The four methyl donors fed to the test group of Agouti mother mice in the study are quite common, so much so that they are found in foods like onions, garlic, and beets; and they are often recommended as supplements to pregnant women. Once a pregnant Agouti mice mother consumes the methyl donors, they work their way into the chromosomes and then onto the Agouti gene in the developing embryo.

Would the chemical switch made possible by the methyl group consumed by the mother mice silence the harmful effects of the Agouti gene in their offspring?

Remarkably, the offspring in Jirtle and Waterland’s study suggest this is exactly what happened. Unlike the obese, sickly parent mice that were given the methyl donors, most of their offspring were slender; they weren’t prone to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes; and had a normal lifespan. Without changing the DNA of the mice, the methyl donors that had attached to the Agouti gene in pregnant Agouti mothers, suppressed its devastating health effects in the offspring. And the profound transformation was due to a simple change in the mother’s diet just before conception.

These findings raise the possibility that a simple change in diet can “redirect” genetically inherited, DNA tendencies coded in our genes—so much so that normal weight and health may manifest instead of obesity and illness.

A New Stay-Slim Secret: Reset Your Genes!

Ultimately, with the emergence of epigenetics, we are traveling a previously untrodden path—replete with unexpected scientific twists, turns, and vistas. One of the more recent insights reveals that an optimal diet (meaning, mostly fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds, with lesser (or no) amounts of wild fish, low-fat, hormone-free dairy, and lean, grass-fed poultry and meat) can reset not only your genes—but also those you pass on to your children—so that that you create health for yourself and through generations.

And the epigenetic news gets even better, because it reveals that it’s never too late to reap the health rewards—regardless of the genes with which you were born! In other words, the diet most of us typically eat each day—NOW—enables your genes either to “express” or “suppress” illness or wellness.

In other words, through the ever-growing body of evidence-based epigenetics studies, you now have the practical insights you need to eat to reset your genes and maintain wellness; to replace a genetic tendency you may have toward obesity and other ailments, with a positive, stay-slim health destiny…for a lifetime.

The Takeaway

Jirtle and Waterland’s landmark study has created a clear connection between diet and the power of food to silence harmful effects coded in genes. Their study is also a remarkabl discovery because it reveals that when a mother is in good health because of a healthful diet, she passes on the health benefits of her diet to herchildren—even though they, themselves, may have inherited a genetic tendency toward obesity and other ailments.

With the discovery of epigenetics, we now know you can eat to prevent and reverse a tendency toward overweight and other chronic conditions in both yourself and your children, and in this way, fulfill your health potential and reclaim your health destiny.


1. Robert A. Waterland and Randy L. Jirtle, “Transposable Elements: Targets for Early Nutritional Effects on Epigenetic Gene Regulation,” Mol Cell Biol. 2003 August; 23(15): 5293–5300.

2. Dean Ornish, Michael Magbanua, Gerdi Weidner, et al. “Changes in prostate gene expression in men undergoing an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention,” Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2008; 105: 8369-74.

3. Dean Ornish, Jue Lin, Jennifer Daubenmier, et al. “Increased telomerase activity and comprehensive lifestyle changes: a pilot study.” The Lancet Oncology, 2013 September; 9(11), 1048-1057.


  • Deborah Kesten


    Whole Person Integrative Eating

    Deborah Kesten is an international nutrition researcher and award-winning author, specializing in preventing and reversing obesity and heart disease. Her research career began as Nutritionist on Dean Ornish, M.D.’s first clinical trial for reversing heart disease, and as Director of Nutrition on similar "reversal" research at cardiovascular clinics in Europe. Deborah is Founder of Whole Person Integrative Eating (WPIE), her evidence-based model and program for treating the root causes of overeating, overweight, and obesity. Her research on WPIE has been published in peer-reviewed medical journals, and her WPIE training-and-certification course for certified health professionals may be accessed at  www.IntegrativeEating.com/training/ and at www.WPIE.org. Deborah's latest award-winning book is Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Breakthrough Dietary Lifestyle for Treating Overeating, Overweight, and ObesityTo learn more, please visit https://integrativeeating.com/iesection/