The Oregon project I referred to yesterday is the OHSU Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness, a partnership between Oregon Health Sciences University and Bob and Charlee Moore of Bob’s Red Mill. The Moores pledged $25 million to OHSU to form this partnership. You read that correctly: $25 million. Let’s just say that I’ve felt great about eating Bob’s Red Mill products for years and years…but now I feel even better about it.
The focus of the Moore Institute is to stop the increase in chronic illness in current and future generations by promoting healthy, nutrient-rich diets based on whole foods in early life. That means before conception, during pregnancy and throughout infancy and early childhood (i.e., the first 1000 days, or so).
The partnership combines the Moores’ interest in healthy food with the work OHSU has already gained recognition for its research on the developmental (fetal) origins of disease. Kent Thornburg, PhD., who gave a lecture last month on “Where Does Disease Come From? Revealing the Secrets of Epigenetics” at OHSU said that, as far as he knows, Bob Moore is the first person in the world to step forward and give a large philanthrophic gift to move the field of epigenetics forward.
I highly recommend watching Thornburg’s lecture. It’s an hour long, and while some portions are a bit “sciency,” most of it is quite accessible to the non-scientist. Epigenetics is such and important and rapidly emerging field, and what is learned through study of the epigenome will help further the fields of nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics, which will in turn lead to advances in personalized nutrition. 
In his lecture, Thornburg said the way we grow before birth “programs” how vulnerable we will be to disease later in life. Being undernourished or overnourished present similar problems later in life, but for different biological reasons. This programming is due to epigenetics, aka the link between the environment and gene expression. Our epigenome can be programmed all though our lifespan, but the period of fetal development is when the effects are most powerful.
  • The genes we inherited from our parents are determined by a code in our DNA. Mutations change the code very slowly over time. (While it’s not true that genes never change, you can’t explain a rapid increase in disease in a population by saying that the affected people must have all experienced a mutation in their genes.)
  • Epigenetic mechanisms don’t change our genetic code, but they can change how genes are turned on and off (regulated) by factors in the environment.
  • The nutrition or stress environments before birth are the most powerful ways that the regulation of our genes can change before we are born.
What do we need to eat every day? Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes (and fish if you can). These foods provide vitamins, minerals, unsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids (if you eat fish) and hundreds of other health-promoting nutrients.
Many women do not eat this type of diet. The declining quality of the American diet is the primary cause of increasing vulnerability for disease in American over the last 30 years. “Americans have given up their right to eat food from the ground by buying food that industry makes easier and tastier…we don’t eat wholesome food as a society any more, and because of that we’re paying a big price.”
This all sounds horrible, and on one level, it certainly is, but Thornburg pointed out that some of these epigenetic effects can be reversed: “We can salvage ourselves by changing our food culture.”