Diet induced epigenetic changes and their implications for health


Prof. John C. Mathers, Human Nutrition Research Centre, Institute for Ageing and Health, Newcastle University, Framlington Place, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE2 4HH, UK. E-mail:


Dietary exposures can have consequences for health years or decades later and this raises questions about the mechanisms through which such exposures are ‘remembered’ and how they result in altered disease risk. There is growing evidence that epigenetic mechanisms may mediate the effects of nutrition and may be causal for the development of common complex (or chronic) diseases. Epigenetics encompasses changes to marks on the genome (and associated cellular machinery) that are copied from one cell generation to the next, which may alter gene expression, but which do not involve changes in the primary DNA sequence. These include three distinct, but closely inter-acting, mechanisms including DNA methylation, histone modifications and non-coding microRNAs (miRNA) which, together, are responsible for regulating gene expression not only during cellular differentiation in embryonic and foetal development but also throughout the life-course. This review summarizes the growing evidence that numerous dietary factors, including micronutrients and non-nutrient dietary components such as genistein and polyphenols, can modify epigenetic marks. In some cases, for example, effects of altered dietary supply of methyl donors on DNA methylation, there are plausible explanations for the observed epigenetic changes, but to a large extent, the mechanisms responsible for diet–epigenome–health relationships remain to be discovered. In addition, relatively little is known about which epigenomic marks are most labile in response to dietary exposures. Given the plasticity of epigenetic marks and their responsiveness to dietary factors, there is potential for the development of epigenetic marks as biomarkers of health for use in intervention studies.