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Could You Be Genetically Programmed to Be a Vegetarian?

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Whether you have concerns about animal cruelty or simply just don't like the taste of meat, the decision to become a vegetarian (or even a weekday-only vegetarian) feels like just that—a decision. But a new study published in the Journal of Molecular Biology is saying you might have as much of a control over your eating habits than you thought. Researchers found a genetic variation that appears to have evolved in populations that have favored vegetarian diets over hundreds of generations, including those in India, Africa, and parts of East Asia, all of which have similar "green" diets today. (Check out 12 Reasons a Vegetarian Diet Is a Good Idea.)

Cornell University's Kaixiong Ye and his colleagues looked at the prevalence of an allele (a term for genetic variation) that was linked to vegetarianism in 234 people from India and 311 people from the U.S. who were primarily vegetarian. They found the variation in 68 percent of the Indians and in just 18 percent of Americans. This furthers the theory that it is people who live in cultures that survive on a mostly plant-based diet who are more likely to carry the vegetarian allele. Americans regularly eat more of the processed stuff—another study published in BMJ Open found that more than 57 percent of U.S. population's diet is made up of "ultra-processed" foods. (Should you really hate on processed foods?)

Interestingly, that same allele allows the people who have it to "efficiently process omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and convert them into compounds essential for early brain development," Ye said in a statement. Omega-3 fatty acids are the heart-healthy fats found in fish like wild salmon; omega-6s are found in beef and pork. An insufficient amount of both omega-3s and omega-6s sets you up for a greater risk of inflammation or even heart disease, a particular danger for vegetarians. And because of the lack of omega-3s and omega-6s in their diet, it's been said that vegetarians have issues with digesting them properly. This study is proof that this allele may have evolved to make that process easier for them. 

The study's results encourage the concept of personalized nutrition, Ye said. "We can use this genomic information to try to tailor our diet so it is matched to our genome," he elaborated in his statement. After all, there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet. Want to implement the practice into your own eating routine? Track your food and listen to your body. (Here's How to Make Food Journaling Work for You.) A gurgling stomach after lunch means it's time to toss the turkey burger and maybe opt for a grilled veggie wrap next time, instead.

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