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You Are What Your Grandpa Eats

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Family records tracking inhabitants in a remote Swedish village (Pejk Malinovski)

Lars Olov Bygren, a professor at Umeå University in Sweden, grew up in a remote village north of the Arctic Circle. It wasn't an easy place to be a kid, and he has cold, hard data to back him up: book after book of facts and figures on the lives of generations of the town's residents, from their health to their financial success, to detailed records on the boom and bust years for crops. The numbers tell a story of wild swings in fortune -- feasts one year, harsh winters and famine the next. Looking at all those records, Olov realized he had a natural experiment on his hands. Along with Sam Kean, Olov explains the bizarre ripples through time that he discovered ... ripples that are totally unexpected, and honestly, sort of terrifying. 


"Why Your DNA Isn't Your Destiny," an article about Olov and his work in Time Magazine.

Pejk Malinovski paid a visit to the records in Sweden, and snapped a bunch of pictures:

A visit to Stockholm, Sweden to check out the historical records.
Pejk Malinovski
A visit to Stockholm, Sweden to check out the historical records.
Stockholm, Sweden
Pejk Malinovski
Historical records in Stockholm, Sweden.
Historical records in Stockholm, Sweden.
Pejk Malinovski
Sweden loves data.
Pejk Malinovski
Card catalogues in Stockholm, Sweden.
Pejk Malinovski
Card catalogue in Stockholm, Sweden.
Pejk Malinovski
Official Statistics.
Pejk Malinovski
Handwritten historical records in Stockholm, Sweden.
Pejk Malinovski
Lots of stats from a page of historical records in Stockholm, Sweden.
Pejk Malinovski


Lars Olov Bygren

Comments [30]


This story has stuck with me all these years and I just now wondered if the United States had a multi-generational health boost stemming from the Great Depression. I was born in 1986 and 2 of my grandparents were old enough to remember the Great Depression, but the generations in my family are relatively spread out. It just so happens that people of my generation are also the first to see a reversal of the life expectancy advances we'd made over the last 100 years. Obviously there are other factors, but maybe the US had also experienced a superficial boost in the life expectancies?

Oct. 13 2017 07:47 AM
michael from Berkeley, CA

Seems neo-Lemarckian to me. Wouldn't natural selection make more sense. People who survive starvation, live to pass on their (better) genes, hence less heart disease, etc.

Feb. 26 2017 12:14 AM

What is the song at the end of this segment? ! Credit the music please!

Sep. 12 2016 02:53 PM
Yarek Rivers from Seattle, WA

The link to Olov's time magazine article is broken!

Jan. 14 2016 12:19 AM
Alex Sims from Earth

This was a very enjoyable podcast. It really got me to thinking by the end of it and thinking about the results of the Swedish study. What our relatives eat and how they life can greatly impact your genes and that is absolutely crazy cool to think about to me. Agriculture is something that has developed so much over the years and will probably continue to grow and prosper for many years to come. No one really thinks about events such as famine in 10 year olds as something that could affect a whole other person 25 years later. Definitely makes one think about what he or she is going to have to eat tomorrow.

Apr. 07 2015 12:00 AM
ny from Ca

Actually on second thought--that far north, if anything grows wild it is probably lichen! Maybe if Olov ever gives up the academic gig he could go into business marketing a few select varieties of lichen (farmed in an environmentally friendly way in the pure air of the arctic of course)as the new miracle food.

Feb. 19 2015 03:57 PM
ny from Ca

I wonder whether the researchers had considered this possibility: Could the presumed effect be due to WHAT was eaten, as well as how much was eaten? If crops failed, perhaps a hungry population turned from the potatoes or barley or whatever the staple crops were and instead relied more on wild green herbs (i.e. weeds), which during good times may have been used less.

If I had a larder full of rich, starchy grains, for example, I would not want to go out tromping around in the snow gathering some bitter, stringy, not-too-palatable wild green herbs or weedy plants to pile on my plate. However, if the larder were empty, I would be filling my belly with whatever I could find.

We now know that green plants have many good kinds of lipids in them that help promote brain health and perhaps have other health benefits too. Could these benefits even be passed on to future generations? If so, what does my diet do for my grandchildren? If I have some greens with my oatmeal, instead of a bagel, am I doing them a favor?

Feb. 19 2015 02:50 PM

I found this segment very interesting, but woefully incomplete in terms of journalism. Not even a mention of the female side of the gene pool. Not even a recognition that you weren't going to focus on that aspect (which I do hope you understand has an equal, if not greater, impact on the health of any child). Not addressing this makes it a junk science report to me.

Dec. 14 2014 02:30 PM

I'm far from a genetic expert,but could this have contributed to America's excepualism? It seems to me that our industrial and scientific giants are and more crucially have always been predominantly first and second generation americans. Misperception?
Also, I read somewhere that females have all their eggs when they are born. If correct, this would explain the reliance on males.

Dec. 13 2014 01:36 PM

This research is bunk. And i hate the cultural meme that has arisen because of media reporting of this delusional work.

To quote a review of the work
"The possibility of societal confounders in these studies remains high and in the absence of molecular evidence, the conclusion that this is a case of gametic epigenetic inheritance seems unwarranted."

In non-scientific language "it is rubbish"

The primordial germ cells are methylated after sex determination in the embryo. Then methylation again occurs during spermatogenesis. There is no mechanism for pre-puberty methylation of sperm cells. And certainly nothing special about the slow growth phase, other than is was the only way this researcher could get a significant result:

I am sad that radiolab ran this story.

Feb. 03 2014 03:00 PM
Jared White from Sacramento

I love the work by Lars Bygren and other scientists looking at how environmental factors affect DNA! So many people seem to think that our genes determine our fate, but that's only true to a limited extent. Thank you RadioLab for sharing this. Researchers at UC Davis, and others, are finding that genes are "turned off and on" by what we eat and how we live. I recommend also checking out the short Ted Talk by Dean Ornish: Our bodies were designed to live a certain way, and if we eat how we were designed to eat, we'll be healthy!

Sep. 30 2013 12:25 AM
Joe from Utah

I'm also curious about what the vibraphone piece at the end of this section was. It sounds an awful lot like some rendition of Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich.

Sep. 04 2013 02:47 PM

Buffy, thanks for making the exact point that I felt was missing from this story the entire time I was listening to it.

Aug. 05 2013 07:34 PM
Adam from Arizona

Correlation is not cause. The grandfathers did not suffer heart attacks because they suffered through lean times, and had no meat to eat. They likely ate whole, plant based foods. This is very healthy and the China Study shows that it will basically eliminate any risks of heart disease or diabetes.

The grandchildren likely lived in Feast times, since the feast/famine periods are cyclical and the researchers had a relatively small sample size. Meaning, the grandchildren ate lots of meat. And in more modern times, they likely consumed all sorts of other unhealthy processed foods that contribute to these diseases.

If you don't want to suffer heart disease and diabetes, eat ONLY whole, plant-based foods. Period.

Apr. 13 2013 02:27 AM

For all those who inquired, the beautiful vocal piece is Primo, by Masakatsu Takagi.

Jan. 26 2013 02:38 PM
adán from tucson

I'm here looking for info about the vibraphone peice also.

Dec. 22 2012 12:18 PM
Alisa from Tokyo, Japan

I just came to ask about the song that starts right after this segment. It's a girl's voice that is very ethereal. The music starts about 4 minutes and 10 seconds into the podcast. Thanks

Dec. 16 2012 09:36 AM
Foot from Mouth

Sarah Siddell commented: "Pardon me, but where is the Grandmother study? If the church has has great records for everyone, what about the girls who starved during their latency years?"

Perhaps the below excerpt from the Time article will shed some light on the matter for this commenter:

"Boys are genetically isolated before puberty because they cannot form sperm. (Girls, by contrast, have their eggs from birth.) That makes the period around puberty fertile ground for epigenetic changes: If the environment is going to imprint epigenetic marks on genes in the Y chromosome, what better time to do it than when sperm is first starting to form?"

Read more:,9171,1952313,00.html#ixzz2F6dCDaHu

Dec. 15 2012 03:13 AM
Bazarov from Brooklyn

This is great. If there is any truth to this, I should live to be 150 despite all the diabetes and heart disease in the family. Thank you Stalin and Hitler!

Dec. 09 2012 07:29 AM

In response to Sarah's comment about no women being studied:

Check out the documentary, "Ghost in your Genes". They go into more detail about the Swedish study and they talk about the epigenomic impact of famine on women and their offspring. I think they may have been limited by time in this podcast.

Dec. 08 2012 11:06 AM
Geoff from Seattle

Would you please share the details about the vibraphone piece in the outro for this segment?

Dec. 06 2012 01:44 PM

Thanks for catching Olle! You're right -- just corrected the image captions. The photos in the slideshow are indeed from Stockholm, not Överkalix.

Dec. 05 2012 02:54 PM
Olle from Lund, Sweden

Guys, thanks for the show, but the images are labeled wrong! As stated in the story, Riksarkivet is in Stockholm, not in Överkalix. :P Having grown up in Stockholm, I instantly recognize the bridge in the second picture as Västerbron.

Dec. 02 2012 05:51 AM
Steve from Logan, Utah

Could this be another benefit of fasting?

Nov. 25 2012 04:35 PM
Richard from Salt Lake City, Utah

Forgive the possible foolishness of this comment. I can't say I really understand the mechanics of sperm cell development in boys age 9-12, (are those same cells used in adulthood?) but could it be that famine at that particular age had the affect of selecting for stronger, more healthy sperm cells, and thereby creating stronger, healthier children and grandchildren? Does evolution get accelerated when selection has a direct impact on reproduction?

Nov. 25 2012 02:48 AM
Sarah Siddell

Pardon me, but where is the Grandmother study? If the church has has great records for everyone, what about the girls who starved during their latency years?

What really bothered me about this segment is that neither Robert nor Jad even THOUGHT to bring up the subject of women who, after all, are the proven parents of the next generations!

In the pre-paternity-testing days, no man could be 100 per cent certain he was the father of a particular child.

This makes it hard to understand why women in the records were not chosen for this study.

Nov. 25 2012 01:04 AM

I thought this was really thought provoking, but I do have a question about the research. Is it possible that those who survived the harsh conditions of famine were just that - survivors? And they passed their genes and and as the gene pool that was a bit heartier? Just curious if that was accounted for.

Nov. 24 2012 04:07 PM

Enjoyed the segment very much. But I'm curious about the name of the song at the end with the girl's voice just drifting above some notes. It starts at about 40m10s on the podcast version. Does anyone know the name of the song?

Nov. 22 2012 01:17 AM
Buffy from Atlanta, GA

Loved this episode, it was really thought provoking. I thought it was interesting what the results of that Swedish study. There is another large scale study that similarly studied the effects of famine on pregnant mothers and found quite the opposite. The Dutch Famine Study found an association between undernutrition during postnatal periods of development and increased obesity in adulthood. Children that were conceived and spent their early childhood during the Dutch famine of 1944 had a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Nov. 21 2012 09:09 AM
Tom Cronin from Atlanta GA

Noticeable by its absence was the extension to the current population. Is it possible that heart disease and diabetes are exploding right now in the US because we did not suffer the same hardships as much of the world during WWI, and had a boom in food quality and availability in the 1950's? Is this why countries that developed full-scale industrial agriculture later are now seeing an increase in disease often linked to "the western diet"? If our fathers' and grandfathers' diets from decades ago are causing an explosion in cardiovascular disease today, what does that mean for the current emphasis on exercise and dietary guidelines for at-risk adults? Are we trying to sweep back the incoming tide with a broom?

Nov. 20 2012 11:22 AM

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