More Than Your Genes: Cardiologist says food is medicine in fighting genetic influences

It may come as a surprise to those who’ve met the petite-framed cardiologist Mimi Guarneri of Pacific Pearl La Jolla, that she is genetically predisposed to obesity. She announced this to the crowd at her health lecture Sept. 19 at La Jolla Community Center, to illustrate that just because someone may carry the gene for an ailment, that doesn’t mean that ailment will come to fruition.

Further, Guarneri said the development of predisposed conditions could be slowed or prevented with lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, spiritual practice, social interaction and stress reduction.

“If I were to sit behind a desk eating bon-bons and chips all day, I would manifest the gene for obesity,” she told the crowd. “You have this book of life, which is your genes, but the chapter you write depends on how you live your life. You are more than your genes.”

During the course of the hour-long lecture, Guarneri cited studies to prove her point, such as one with Amish people that noted a high percentage carry the gene for obesity but are not obese. “It’s because the Amish don’t have cars and they walk everywhere,” she explained. “They walk, on average, 18,000 steps a day.”

In another study, a group of men with “turned on” prostate cancer genes were put on a vegan diet, instructed to do yoga and meditate regularly, and attend group therapy. “One year later, there was a down-regulation of 500 cancer genes through lifestyle change,” Guarneri said.

“Ask yourselves: What genes do I turn on or off, based on the way I’m living in my life?”

For certain genes, such as cancer, Guarneri said diet is crucial. “Cancer loves sugar, so cancer genes are fed and ‘turned on’ by sugar,” she said. “The fruits and vegetables you actually bite into have fiber, which slows the absorption of sugar, so eat your leafy greens.”

She also recommended eliminating white sugar, white flour and dairy products from one’s diet, and implementing the “Mediterranean Diet” because studies show a 70 percent reduction in death and recurring cardiovascular events in those who eat this way. The Mayo Clinic describes the Mediterranean Diet as primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts; replacing butter with healthier fats such as olive oil and canola oil; using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods; limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month; eating fish and poultry at least twice a week; and drinking red wine in moderation (optional).

Guarneri also advocated for eating ethically sourced fish that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. To help remember what these are, she uses the acronym SMASH: Sardines, Mackerel, Anchovies, Salmon and Herring.

In addition to diet changes and living a food-is-medicine lifestyle, she said physical exercise, stress reduction and having a “tribe” of social support can prevent or reduce the manifestation of dangerous genes.

She explained that her study of integrative medicine came after years of “mopping up the mess” and only treating illness rather than preventing it.

“When I went to medical school in Brooklyn, I studied conventional medicine, which is great in the (response) scenario. If you are having a heart attack or get hit with a truck, you want to be in a trauma center getting the best help Western medicine has to offer. You come to me with an ill, I’m going to give you a pill,” Guarneri said. “But what I never learned was nutrition, and when to use nutra-ceuticals or how to prevent disease. I learned to treat disease after it occurs.”

Over the last 20 years, Dr. Guarneri has been exploring integrative medicine and “how to create health.” She discusses the subsequent lessons and more in her book, “108 Pearls to Awaken Your Healing Potential,” available on at and at her clinic, Pacific Pearl, La Jolla, 6919 La Jolla Blvd. (Park and enter at back.)