Your health was in large part determined before your grandmother was born. We can reverse increasing rates of chronic disease, according to the Moore Institute.

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On Nutrition

Some food for thought: Your health today was in large part determined before your grandmother was born, and we have the ability, through food choices we make today, to reverse the currently increasing rates of chronic disease and ensure the health of future generations. What will it take? A revolution in how we eat — with girls and women as the focus.

Leading the charge to change the way society thinks about food, health and chronic disease is the Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU). The Institute’s mission is to stop the increase in chronic disease in current and future generations by promoting healthy, nutrient-rich diets based on whole foods before conception, during pregnancy and throughout infancy and early childhood.

Why? Because a woman’s nutrition before conception and during pregnancy, combined with her infant’s nutrition, affect not just that child’s lifelong health, but the health of his or her future children. In other words, what happens in the first 1,000 days after conception can affect the next 100 years.

Resources online

TedX Portland

Kent Thornburg’s 2015 TedX Portland talk, “The epidemic of chronic disease and understanding epigenetics”: youtu.be/ReCvreRPdeY

‘Better the Future’

A Moore Institute blog: betterthefuture.org

“Chronic diseases are not the inevitable lot of humankind … we could readily prevent them, had we the will to do so,” wrote Kent Thornburg, Ph.D., director of both the Moore Institute and the Center for Developmental Health at the Knight Cardiovascular Institute at OHSU, and David Barker, MD, Ph.D., in 2013. “Protecting the nutrition and health of girls and young women should be the cornerstone of public health. Not only will it prevent chronic disease, but it will produce new generations who have better health and well-being through their lives.”

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Thornburg and Barker met in 1988, around the time that Barker discovered that low-birth-weight babies are at increased risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. This led to the broader understanding that chronic adult diseases, including obesity, certain cancers and infections, are “programmed” in the womb by harmful influences like malnutrition and maternal stress. This concept is now known as the developmental origins of health and disease.

Thornburg was doing similar research at OHSU, and the two joined forces when Barker came to the OHSU team in 2004. Barker died in 2013, the same year Bob and Charlee Moore of Bob’s Red Mill partnered with OHSU by pledging $25 million to form the Moore Institute.

Thornburg says that the Moores are the first people in the world to give a large philanthropic gift to move the field of epigenetics and nutrition forward. Although the National Institutes of Health is a major source of funding for research that has already shown promise, initial funding tends to come from philanthropic donors.

“It’s a minority of philanthropists that want to fund basic science,” Thornburg said. “What I’m trying to do is help the philanthropic community realize that the stakes are so high. By funding this type of research, they could reduce medical costs and chronic disease for all of us.”

The idea of the relationship between nutrition and chronic disease intrigued the Moores, said Lori Sobelson, director of community outreach for Bob’s Red Mill and member of the Moore Institute steering committee. “We knew intuitively that eating healthy was a good thing, and now we do have the science to back it up.“

The Moore Institute is targeting “high-calorie malnutrition,” which comes from a diet high in sugar and fat but low in nutrients. A nutrient-rich diet is important before and during pregnancy, because the nutrients available to a fetus determine how it will grow, including how its organs develop and body’s systems (such as the cardiovascular system) function. Essentially, a mother’s diet during pregnancy “programs” how vulnerable her child will be to disease later in life.

This programming is due to epigenetics — the link between our environment and our genes. If your genome — all of your DNA — is your “hardware,” your epigenome would be your software. Epigenetic programming doesn’t actually change your genes, but it can turn them on and off. For example, you may inherit genes that predispose you to a certain disease, but if those genes are “turned off,” you may end up with the same level of risk of someone who didn’t inherit those genes. Your epigenome can be programmed all through your life span, but your exposures to nutrition and stress before birth and during infancy are the most powerful. Thornburg says that this is ultimately a societal issue.

“Women are no more to blame for the health of our population than the men,” he said. “It’s really the cultural environment that decides what we eat. Both men and women have a responsibility to improve the food culture in order to improve the health of future generations.”

OHSU was already a national leader in studying the developmental origins of disease, and The Moore Institute has added a focus on community outreach. Thornburg said the research is important because it’s not enough to help women improve their diets and observe that the result is healthier babies — it’s crucial to expand knowledge of why nutrition makes a difference. “We don’t understand many aspects of how nutrients have their effects,” he said. “We want to understand the biological mechanisms.”

However Thornburg says that community outreach may be more important, “You can never change the health of the population without changing the health of the food culture. The food culture in the U.S. has to change — and has to change dramatically — to see an improvement in chronic diseases.” With that in mind, the Moore Institute is spreading its message broadly. In May, it hosted the International Summit on the Nutrition of Adolescent Girls and Young Women.

“The potential and the possibilities are endless,” Sobelson said. “Ken’s a dreamer, and he’s got great dreams. I can’t imagine where we’d be without him, with what he’s accomplished in such a short amount of time. He shoots for the stars.”