©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
You are a minibus in which your ancestors ride
“My wife is a fabulous cook,” said Warren, laughing and patting his considerable bulk while winking at his wife.
“I learned how to cook from my mother,” said Anne. “She cooked with real butter and cream and her food tasted so good. Guess I copied her style.” She paused. “Actually, Mother is the reason we’re in this program. She weighed over 300 pounds when she died recently following a massive heart attack. At age 56, no less. That was way too young to go! I’m hovering around 200 pounds, so I need to do something about that—and soon.”
“Good job!” replied their wellness coach. “You’ve identified a pattern of cooking that your mother probably learned from her mother, who learned from her mother, and so on. Epigenetics is the study of the transmission of behavioral patterns outside genes and chromosomes. It includes cellular memory—a form of non-declarative memory stored in the cell nucleus—that can influence your choices, preferences, and behaviors. You may be impacted by cellular memories from the past 3-4 generations, and you may pass on cellular memory to the next 3-4 generations of your biological line.”
“I wonder what other cellular memories I have,” said Anne, “besides adding butter to absolutely everything.”
“Family-of-origin work could help you identify some of those patterns,” the coach suggested. “You can only manage what you can label and describe. Imagine that you are an archeologist and do some mental digging. Make notes of everything you can recall about food, cooking, eating, and weight management in your family of origin. Ask the older generation what they recall or were told.”
Family-of-origin work is a deliberate and conscious process of getting to know who you are against the backdrop of your family system, including both nature (genes and chromosomes) and nurture (your environment including cellular memory). You can do this by identifying behavioral patterns that have been passed down through the generations, such as eating style, favorite foods, exercising or not exercising, managing weight, amount of sleep.
Patterns often surface at family gatherings, so be alert. For example:
- Do family members show their affection through preparing and serving food? (“Let me fix you a snack. It’ll only take a few minutes!”)
- Are you encouraged to eat more than you need in order to show your appreciation? (“Grandma worked hard to make this dessert. Have another helping!”)
- Is snacking between meals or at bedtime a common behavior? (“Eat something before going to bed; you don’t want to wake up hungry in the middle of the night!”)
Preplanning possible responses can help you break unhelpful patterns of behavior. If you choose to eat a piece of Grandma’s famous pumpkin pie, eat very slowly. Take small bites and chew each well. This may minimize the likelihood of your being pushed to eat more. Always leave a small amount on your plate. If urged to take a second helping, just point to your plate, pat your stomach, and shake your head. After all, it is highly unlikely someone will try to force-feed you at gunpoint.
“Speaking of eating,” said Warren, “what do you recommend when we get the urge to eat white-bread toast dripping in butter and slathered with Marion berry jam?”
“Try saying something like this: ‘Oh, there’s that cellular-memory urge again. You have a new eating plan now. You are eating toast with a smear of natural almond butter and a hint of Marion berry jam. You will eat slowly and you feel satisfied.’”
“I didn’t know about cellular memory or family-of-origin work, but they make a lot of sense,” said Anne, getting to her feet. “I plan to learn more about both of them.”
“Before we go,” said Warren, “My wife here is upset that I’ve lost more weight than she, and I know she’s been working the program. She’s even lost a whole dress size,” he added, smiling at his wife.
“Great about the dress size, Anne,” said the coach. “There's an old myth circulating that muscle weighs more than fat. Pound for pound, they weigh the same. After all, a pound is a pound is a pound. There is a difference, however, in weight by volume, if you will. If you had a quart of muscle tissue and a quart of fat, the muscle tissue would weigh more because muscle tissue is denser. Replacing fat with muscle helps sculpt your body. Your dress size may not always reflect just the number on your scale. And speaking of muscles, typically it’s easier for a male to lose weight. A larger percentage of a man’s body mass is muscle, which burns more calories even when he’s asleep. The average female can expect to gain weight if she eats as much as a comparable male. And, once gained, she usually finds it more difficult to lose the weight. Maintaining optimum weight is an ongoing challenge for many individuals, especially for those who know how to make food taste good or who tend to eat (or not eat) when stressed.”
“I’ve learned that the hard way,” said Anne, groaning. “From here on out I plan to eat more carefully and cook more healthfully. That will help Warren, too.”
Bottom line: Good, bad, or indifferent, you have absorbed patterns of behavior from your family of origin. Do some family-of-origin work to identify as many as you can. In a sense, you also carry your ancestors with you in the form of cellular memories. While cellular memories and family patterns may push you toward specific types of behaviors, you choose whether to act upon those urges or to make healthier choices. Knowledge is power. Now that you have more knowledge, use it wisely to help you be successful. Especially in the area of managing your weight and healthier living!