A new study suggests that the saying “you are what you eat” is more than just an old adage. According to the research, led by scientists from Cornell University, cultures that have adhered to strictly vegetarian diets for many generations have developed a unique genetic mutation that could put them them at increased risk for heart disease and colon cancer.
Fatty acids serve as the building blocks of fats in our body, and play important roles in how we store energy and grow and repair cells. According to the European Food Information Council,the human body is able to produce all the fatty acids it needs, except for two: omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids. We find these in our food.
The conversion of plants into fatty acids is a complicated metabolic process. When animals eat plants, their bodies metabolize the nutrients within into fatty acids, which we absorb when we eat the animals. Vegetarians, however, must go through this process on their own, metabolizing the fatty acids directly from their plant diet.
We all use the enzymes FADS1 and FADS2 to break down omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids for our bodies to use for brain development and controlling inflammation. In their study, the team identified a mutation, rs66698963, in the gene responsible for expressing FADS 1 and FADS 2. An insertion mutation, characterized by extra base pairs, caused an increase in the production of the two enzymes and a better ability to produce fatty acids from plants — which is why it was dubbed the vegetarian allele.