Environmental and Toxic Tort Advisor

We Are What We Eat: How a Person’s Diet Can Play a Part in Defending a Toxic Tort Case

March 28, 2022

Chad D. Mountain

Philadelphia

For as long as humanity has existed, there has been a love-hate relationship with food and diet in our daily lives. We love celebrating a big moment in our life with a Michelin-rated meal, but the next day many of us are filled with regret because of the number of calories our euphoria caused us to consume. Adding to the angst you may have after seeing the latest tally staring at you on your bathroom scale is the field of nutrigenomics. This rapidly emerging research field studies the changes induced on the genome by diet. Thus, it considers the intersection of health, diet, and genomics. The researchers who focus on nutrigenomics understand that the food we eat impacts both how our bodies look and our genome in ways that many of us never imagined to be possible. You may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with a toxic tort case?

The high rate of obesity in our country has been rapidly gaining acceptance as a risk factor for the increasing rate of cancer that we see in our country. You may be surprised to learn that being obese is linked with a higher risk of getting 13 types of cancer. These cancers make up 40% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States each year. According to research from the American Cancer Society, excess body weight is thought to be responsible for about 11% of cancers in women, about 5% of cancers in men in the United States, and about 7% of all cancer deaths. Nutrigenomics research makes it possible to not only defend a toxic tort case by pointing to the obesity of a plaintiff; it is also likely that we will soon be able to defend such a case by digging deeper with an analysis of the specific foods that a plaintiff eats.

A majority of nutrigenomics studies have centered on animals, most notably being bees. Worker bees and queen bees are genetically identical, yet we all know that their roles within a hive are drastically different. This difference is based on what bees eat. Queen bees feed on royal jelly and worker bees feed on nectar and pollen. The difference in the composition of these food sources determines what path in life bees will take, i.e. we are what we eat. Depending on the type of nutritional information, the genetic controls activated and the cell that receives them, the messages in food can influence wellness, disease risk, and even life span. Interestingly, the ability of nutrients to impact genetics can impact numerous generations seen in families. Studies show that in humans and animals, the diet of grandparents influences the genome and the disease risk and mortality of grandchildren.

Many researchers in the field of nutrigenomics believe that although you cannot completely eliminate your risk of cancer and other serious disease by controlling your diet, you can significantly reduce your risk by watching what you eat. This is because certain foods may lead to the development of genetic mutations that can put you at an increased risk of developing disease. There is no question that additional research is needed in this field, but it is clear that the composition and quantity of our diets can be key in influencing disease onset. In choosing what we eat, we choose whether we will provide our genes with the weapons that cause disease.

There is no question that this field requires a lot of maturation to fully answer the many questions that it poses, such as the mechanism by which nutrients in food trigger our genome.  Still, there is no doubt that in the near-future litigators in a toxic tort case will be asking a plaintiff, “So what do you like to eat?”


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