Judith Finlayson on changing eating history

Judith Finlayson on changing eating history

Cookbook author extraordinaire Judith Finlayson’s latest book, You Are What Your Grandparents Ate, establishes the multigenerational connections between physical health and mental wellbeing. Calling on the research of British epidemiologist David Barker, Judith offers insight into how epigenetics can help you pay attention to trouble areas in your microbiome as well as advice on small changes that can lead to big results in your health and that of your future family.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Judith. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Lose Weight.”

Judith Finlayson: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: You are this cookbook author extraordinaire. I don’t know how you’ve written so many cookbooks on so many different topics. I feel like I need to go make some quinoa or farro, I don’t know, something. I’ve got to eat healthy because of you. Tell me a little bit about your latest book, You Are What Your Grandparents Ate.

Judith: I, as you noted, have written a lot of cookbooks. Before I started writing cookbooks, I was actually a journalist. Food was always my passion and my hobby. About twenty years ago, I had an opportunity to write a cookbook. It did very well. I decided that I would switch careers at that point and start doing cookbooks, which I have been doing for twenty years. Because I’m obsessive and interested in all kinds of things, that got me really interested in nutrition. Getting interested in nutrition, I became, of course, very interested in the science of nutrition. To make a long story short, a number of years ago, somebody introduced me to the work of David Barker who was a British epidemiologist who got the ball rolling on this whole area of science known as the developmental origins of health and disease. That ended up being what motivated me to write You Are What Your Grandparents Ate because I was just blown away by what he was saying. This was a paradigm shift in how we were looking at health and wellness. I would do things like I’d go to see my doctor and say, “You know about David Barker?” She’d never heard of him. That kind of story was repeated. I’d run into medical people and would ask them and whatever. Nobody knew about it. I wrote You Are What Your Grandparents Ate, which is built around David Barker’s work. Of course, since I’m an obsessive — once I get going on something, it’s become much more than that. It fits this whole puzzle together of the relationship between our health and a healthy lifestyle. It really shows how we can take control of things one step at a time. I know that your key audience is mothers who don’t have time to do anything anymore except get through COVID. You can do it by little steps.

Zibby: When I first was researching your book, I was getting a bit discouraged because the main theory from David Barker’s work is that the sins of the elders are reflected on the youngers. Whatever it is that your ancestors — not that many generations, but whatever they were doing with their health and fitness and their eating can have long-term consequences, which, by the way, now makes me a little bit paranoid about what I’m doing for — I guess it’s too late. My kids are out there. What you do has ripple effects for generations. I’m trying to think, all those chessmen cookies my grandmother was always eating, I don’t know, is that why I like Pepperidge Farm cookies? I’m kidding. I know it doesn’t work exactly like that. This is really profound. It’s similar to the theory of inherited trauma. You can have it almost in your genes.

Judith: They’re linked. They’re very linked. As you know, there’s a whole chapter in the book on stress and on trauma and on the work that’s being done around the inheritance of that. I’ll try to give you a capsule of this. There is bad news. Then there is some good news too. I’ll try and do both of those in one shot. It is transmitted through biological memories. It’s through the sperm cells and through the eggs. If you’re a pregnant woman and you are pregnant with a female child, those eggs are developing while she is still in your womb. The stress you experience, the food you eat, the air that you breathe is having an impact on quality of those reproductive cells. With males, the timing is different. It’s around the time of puberty. That’s when sperm cells are forming. They’ve done studies that have shown, for instance, that if young boys eat too much around the time of puberty, that their grandsons are more likely to die young, that smoking around the time of puberty is more likely to set up your descendants for things like metabolic illness. This is a newer area of research than developmental origins of health and disease. They’re starting to think that there should be a whole thing called paternal origins of health and disease. Of course, it’s very easy to blame it all on mother because we’re the ones who get pregnant and who have the children and who get all this, don’t drink, don’t smoke, all of which is fine advice, but it’s not all our fault.

Anyway, these reproductive cells come together to form a fetus, a baby. They carry these biological memories. That plus whatever happens to a mother’s experience while she is pregnant, like poor nutrition, like chronic stress, like toxic exposures, have a profound impact on the fetus both in terms of affecting how its organs develop, but also in terms of what we call epigenetic changes. You know that you’re born with your genes. Your genes are your genes. You can’t change them. How your genes behave is your epigenome. Those changes either go up or down. They affect your gene expression. Those things also influence — particularly in pregnancy, the strong research is showing changes in an epigenetic process known as methylation which really can influence metabolism. A lot of this research came out of the Dutch Hunger Winter. That was when women in Holland who happened to be pregnant were starved when the Germans cut off food to Northern Holland. They found those children had different rates of methylation, gene expressions related to methylation that predisposed them to what they describe as metabolic disturbances. That’s a greater likelihood of obesity, of type two diabetes, and of heart disease. That’s the bad news. The good news is that these epigenetics changes are really very easily influenced through things like lifestyle adaptations. By eating a healthy diet, by getting an appropriate amount of exercise, doing things like mindfulness techniques like meditation, yoga, and so on have also been shown to improve gene expression. There’s a wide range of things that we can do to address your grandmother’s Pepperidge Farm cookies.

Zibby: Thank you. Phew.

Judith: Yeah, I know. It’s good to know, isn’t it?

Zibby: It’s like when you’re at a dermatologist and they say, are you predisposed to skin cancer? It means you need to be a little more careful with the sun lotion. This is a similar thing. Based on what has happened, you may need to pay particular attention to X, Y, Z area. It’s good to know that something that was not a risk factor is perhaps a risk factor and is not insurmountable, but something you have to pay particular attention to.

Judith: Yes, absolutely. The last chapter in the book is on your microbiome. In a way, that was almost an add-on chapter. I’ve been very interested in the microbiome since it hit the news. It’s just the kind of thing that really intrigues me. I start researching the book. It was there. It was the last chapter. Over the course of doing the research, I became really more and more convinced of the fundamental role of the microbiome in all of this. In a way, it’s the easiest way of starting a solution to this problem. The microbiome is linked with all kinds of biological pathways: your immune system, your mental health through what they call the gut-brain axis, and your metabolism. Obese people have different microbiomes than people who are not obese, different ratios of certain types of bacteria. By adjusting or beginning to take a movement forward into improving your microbiome — nobody knows what a perfect microbiome is. In fact, there may not be a perfect microbiome. Your microbiome is really as individual as your fingerprints. What we do know is that you want as much diversity as possible. You want the good bacteria to really have control. Probably the easiest way of doing that is by introducing fiber from whole foods, things like whole grains, legumes, or so on. These are known as microbiota-accessible carbohydrates, MACs. Those MACs really work to improve your ratios of bacteria. Those have a profound effect across your body all over the place. What I like to say — I’m going to let you get a word in edgewise in a minute.

Zibby: I don’t need one.

Judith: What I like to say is that if you’re going to do one thing, start with having a good — it’s incremental change. You can’t do everything all at once. As mothers, we just can’t. Start by making yourself a great whole grain breakfast. Oatmeal is really easy to make. If it works for you, put it in the slow cooker before you go to bed at night. It’ll be hot and wonderful when you wake up in the morning. Do overnight oats in the refrigerator, whatever. Just that one bowl of whole grain oatmeal is going to help to start the process of making a really good change by nourishing all of those lovely friendly little critters in your gut and helping them to reproduce.

Zibby: Can it be the kind of oatmeal that comes in a packet? Do you have to do it on the stove? I have oatmeal that I like that’s Flax Plus Oatmeal from Nature’s Own or something. Is that okay?

Judith: If it’s whole grain oats, yeah, absolutely, and hasn’t been processed. Just read the label. Whole grain oats are fabulous. They’re not hard to deal with. You can even do granola if you don’t want to cook it.

Zibby: So takeaways here for, A, what I should do, and B, what I should tell my thirteen-year-old son to do so he doesn’t ruin everything for his offspring right now with what’s he’s eating. For moms who already have passed on these genetic expressions and are dealing with the genetic expressions from our grandparents or parents, A, start the day with whole grains. B, make sure to get plenty of healthy exercise and a whole-grain, healthy diet. C, have a special note in your head of what, perhaps, was done in the past and how that might affect you. Those are my three takeaways, yes?

Judith: Absolutely.

Zibby: Then for the kids who have the ability now to change the biological landscape, if you will, for all of their future offspring, A, boys around puberty need to eat really well and not —

Judith: — Not too much.

Zibby: Not too much. Eat —

Judith: — Very healthy whole foods, yes.

Zibby: Okay. Well, that’ll be a challenge. Then for girls, it already started. When I was stressed out and pregnant, I’ve already doomed my girls, essentially.

Judith: No, you have not. The interesting thing is there is a systemic component to this. You are healthy. You eat well. You take good care of yourself, relatively speaking. You’re rolling your eyes, but I’m sure .

Zibby: I’m thinking of what I ate when I was pregnant. I wouldn’t be shouting that from the rooftops as healthy eating. Anyway, go on.

Judith: I had a same thing with my daughter recently who is pregnant. I understand that. What I said to her is the same thing that I will say to your audience. You’ve grown up eating a healthy diet. You have a lot of reserves. The fact that you’re feeling crappy and don’t want to eat for two or three days or whatever is not going to be a problem because the fetus will draw on your reserves. You have lots of reserves because you had a healthy lifestyle. They found this with the Dutch Hunger Winter. Usually in situations of malnutrition, one of the things that happens is full-term babies are born with low birth weight, which is actually a technical term of 5.5 pounds or less. That is a marker for really ill health. You have to watch a child that’s born at that weight closely and start intervening. With the Dutch women, they had been very, very well nourished prior to the embargo from the Germans. Their babies were born at full-term weight or with a healthy birth weight. It didn’t make as much as a difference to those children as it did to some other children. You can see in racialized communities, things like the Stroke Belt in the Southern US, what you’re seeing is generations of poor nutrition and chronic stress. Those women, if they don’t have enough to eat, they don’t have enough nourishment for the fetus, when the fetus goes to the default position, which is drawing off the mother’s reserves, there isn’t any there. That’s not the case for all women. Just be aware of that.

Zibby: Okay. So what did you have for breakfast this morning?

Judith: I had a bowl of artisanal granola which comes with oatmeal, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, a few nuts. It’s seasoned with some great spices. I have that with a non-dairy milk.

Zibby: All right, I could actually do that. I could pull that off. I still haven’t had breakfast yet. I’m going to try to eat your way. I’m going to bump up my oatmeal and granola consumption, which sounds like a very easy task to do. I find this whole area of research fascinating. I’m so glad I got to talk to you about it. It’s revolutionary, this way of thinking about transmission of eating, transmission of stress, transmission of habits, and what we can do for everyone who comes next. I think it’s just so interesting. I’m glad to be a beneficiary of your obsessive research today. Thank you.

Judith: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Thanks. Take care. Buh-bye.

Judith: Thanks. Bye.

Judith Finlayson on changing eating history

You Are What Your Grandparents Ate

By Judith Finlayson

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