By Kent Thornburg, Ph.D.

January is a time to think about positive changes, and often our resolutions have to do with health and healthy eating. Thoughtful nutritious eating is one of the most important ways we can improve and maintain our individual health.

As you work on meeting your resolutions this year, take heart and get some added motivation by knowing that your food choices today may help change the genetic outcomes of the next generation, helping to eradicate chronic diseases by the end of the century.

Incredible, right? But true.

A growing body of research has given us new insight into the origins of chronic disease and indicates that susceptibility to diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even some forms of cancer is established far earlier than we once thought. In fact, our risk for chronic disease is strongly influenced by the nutrition and well-being our mothers experienced around their pregnancies, and on the nutrition and care we received through the first 1,000 days following conception.

This groundbreaking research shows us that our genes aren’t a rigid blueprint for our health but a series of infinite possibilities turned on or off depending on the nutrition our mothers experienced not just during but long before their pregnancies.

While this science shows us that individual vulnerability for developing chronic disease may be programmed in the womb, whether that risk manifests as chronic disease later in life depends on the choices we make as adults, including the food we eat.

But we all know it’s not easy to make healthy eating choices, or even to know what those choices are. Grocery store shelves are filled with highly processed products promoted by huge marketing campaigns; restaurant menus are filled with high-fat, high-calorie and sodium- and sugar-laden fare; and our drive home from work takes us past fast-food drive-thrus with brightly lit signs promoting dollar menus.

All of this is hard to pass up when we are stressed by daily life, work and family obligations, and we often find it easier to buy premade food than cook a healthy meal at home.

At the Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness at Oregon Health & Science University, we are working to spread the word about the intergenerational effects of nutrition. Our intention is to catalyze a revolution in our current food culture so the healthy choice becomes the easy choice.

We all have a role to play in a food revolution that has the power to reduce or wipe out chronic disease in future generations. That’s true whether you are a woman who is pregnant or thinking of having a child, a parent or grandparent who can play an influential role in the eating habits of adolescents in your family or a community member who can spread the word to others and work toward making a positive change to our current food culture. Because while the pregnant mother may be the environment of the developing child, the community is the environment of the mother.

The key to reducing the prevalence of chronic diseases in your own life and in future generations starts by promoting healthy, nutrient-rich diets based on wholesome foods.

So take heart as you strive to meet your resolutions for a healthier you. Making more nutritious food choices won’t only make a positive difference in your own health but also in the health of future generations as well. That’s a powerful motivator.

— Kent Thornburg, Ph.D., is director of the OHSU Bob and Charlee Moore Institute for Nutrition & Wellness.