updated 6/17/2005 11:42:21 AM ET 2005-06-17T15:42:21

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) both issue science-based guidelines for healthful eating. But do these recommendations apply to everyone?

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Research does show that certain eating patterns, like the USDA and AICR prescribe, lower the risk of chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Yet a blossoming field of research suggests that inherited differences may make some individuals respond differently to the same diet.

It has been known for a while that some inherited genes can make some people more likely to develop certain diseases. For example, 5 to 10 percent of all cancers are linked to inherited genes.

With more research on how genes work, the ability of doctors to diagnose health problems at very early stages – even before they fully develop – and select the proper treatment is expected to improve. Furthermore, some researchers are looking exclusively at how people’s genetic makeup might affect their body’s response to diet.

Personal diet plans to fight disease
As research in these areas progresses, people with a strong family history of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis or other chronic ailments may be able to meet with a health professional and work out a prevention plan.

Together they could review the many interacting influences that might affect their risk of developing the disease and how best to avoid them.

For example, people with a family history of heart disease might develop a multi-dimensional prevention strategy that goes way beyond monitoring blood cholesterol levels. The strategy might include setting exercise goals, consuming specific antioxidant nutrients and phytochemicals, and the choice of dietary fats.

All these steps may help prevent heart disease due to chronic inflammation that can be measured in blood tests by a marker called CRP.

People with a family history of colon cancer might develop a prevention plan that outlines specific amounts and kinds of fat, fiber, carbohydrates, meat, calcium, vitamin D and calories, in addition to exercise routines.

A better understanding of genetic differences could improve the health of people without a family history of some disease, as well.

Recommendations can benefit all
For the vast majority of us, HDL (“good”) cholesterol stays higher when we limit the polyunsaturated fat found in most vegetable oils and margarine. That is why the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes olive oil with its higher monounsaturated fat content, is an excellent eating style. For a few people, however, a particular genetic variation causes them to have healthier HDL levels with a slightly higher polyunsaturated fat consumption.

Genetic variations also seem to explain why alcohol can affect different people’s risk of heart disease in different ways. Depending on their inherited traits, people might want to avoid alcohol altogether or strongly limit its use.

The promising research on the interactions between genes and diet does not, however, diminish the value of today’s dietary recommendations for the general public.

A primary recommendation of any science-based guidelines for the prevention of cancer and other diseases is: Eat a mostly plant-based diet. This healthy eating style focuses on vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.

Although some people may benefit from these foods or particular kinds of these foods more than others, these foods still supply vitamins, fiber, minerals, and a host of health-promoting phytochemicals that are vital to us all.

People may vary in the health benefit they receive from drinking alcohol in moderation or not at all, but nobody benefits from excessive alcohol. Likewise, some people may need more exercise than others, but we all benefit from more activity.

And even if individuals differ in the ideal amounts of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and even total fat they should have, limiting saturated fat and trans fat should still be good advice for us all.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research  in Washington, D.C.©

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