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We should all eat more DNA

2016 is here. The New Year is a time for renewal and resolution. It is also a time for dieting. Peak enrolment and attendance times at gyms occur after sumptuous holiday indulgences in December and again when beach wear is cracked out of cold storage in summer.

As the obesity epidemic reaches across the globe we need new solutions. We need better ways to live healthy lifestyles.

From crazy diets of yore that included the cigarette diet, the cotton ball diet, and the Sleeping Beauty diet (a programme of coma induced weight loss associated with Elvis Presley), it seems every possible caloric manipulation has been proselytized over time.

Luckily, trends are moving towards more sensible diets that stress high nutritional value. Among the most famous is the low-fat diet of the 1980s, which encouraged us to fill up on carbohydrates, and the Atkins diet that later encouraged us to fill up on protein (i.e. eating our hamburgers without buns). The more recent Paleo diet mimics the food culture of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and is heavy on meats, fruits and vegetables but eschews grains, but whether this is historically accurate is debatable.

Today, science is filling in more details about how our bodies metabolize food and store fat. It could be that any of these diets is best for you. In 2016 it is possible to take ‘healthy eating’ to the next step and optimize diet according to DNA. It is also increasingly apparent that we need to take our microbiomes into account too.

But there is a far more fundamental way that all of us can benefit from paying attention to DNA in deciding what we eat.

Slice of cake, by Blondinrikard Froberg. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Slice of cake, by Blondinrikard Froberg. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

I would like to propose a generic “Eat-DNA Diet” as a healthy life-style guide. It follows one simple tenet:

‘Avoid anything that lacks DNA.’

Humans aren’t designed to eat things without DNA. At the most extreme, this includes toxins, poisons, cleaning detergents – well, the list goes on to span the inanimate universe. In our modern diets this means avoiding refined sugars, fats, preservatives, additives, and bulking agents.

A diet “high in DNA” is a living diet packed with fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, grains and meats, and to a lesser extent dairy (only milk will have a bit of DNA, from shed cow cells, and higher fat items like whipped cream will have trace amounts if any). Eating foods rich in DNA cuts processed foods from ones diet. By rule, the more processed a food is, the less DNA it will have so this is a great guideline.

If you need any proof that all living things have DNA you can extract it yourself. This is a staple demonstration at science fairs today. Strawberries and bananas are favourites. Little fingers can mush them easily. Just stick a chunk in a plastic bag, add fairy liquid and squish. Physical force and soap break the cell membranes which releases the DNA. Add high proof alcohol, mix, and watch for the spidery strands of DNA that will appear in the top layer of alcohol. Use a toothpick to swirl your prize up. Even a single strawberry will produce a clump of DNA about the size of an ant. The grown up version of this makes a great cocktail party trick.

Interestingly ripeness plays a role in the quality of the DNA. A ripe banana will give loads but an overripe one won’t. This is because the DNA starts to break apart in the cells as part of the natural process of decay. The DNA is all still there, just broken down, so the extraction doesn’t produce the very long gossamer threads that cling together in this type of extraction. This is a reminder that most animals eat fruits at the peak of ripeness and humans should too.

It’s obvious that salad is a better nutritional choice than a piece of chocolate-fudge cake. The DNA-0-meter agrees: a garden salad will have more DNA, and more diverse DNAs. If totally processed you might be hard pressed to find any DNA in cake except a bit in the flour – more if it is whole wheat, which still contains the wheat germ. But who eats whole-wheat cake? The point is as we optimize for taste, we often strip out DNA.

The word ‘diet’ comes from the Latin word dieta, or “a daily food allowance”. The related diaeta (and Greek diaita) means “a way of life, a regimen”.

The best thing about the “DNA Diet” is that it’s not a fad. It never goes out of fashion. It has been here since life evolved. It just seems many of us have forgotten it.

Featured image credit: Farmer’s market, by Patrick Kuhl. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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