Nutrition plays a key role in many aspects of health and dietary imbalances are major determinants of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer. Adequate nutrition is particularly essential during critical periods in early life (both pre- and postnatal). In this regard, there is extensive epidemiologic and experimental data showing that early sub-optimal nutrition can have health consequences several decades later.
The hypothesis that epigenetic mechanisms may link such nutritional imbalances with altered disease risk has been gaining acceptance over recent years. Epigenetics can be defined as the study of heritable changes in gene expression that do not involve alterations in the DNA sequence. Epigenetic marks include DNA methylation, histone modifications and a variety of non-coding RNAs. Strikingly, they are plastic and respond to environmental signals, including diet. Here we will review how dietary factors modulate the establishment and maintenance of epigenetic marks, thereby influencing gene expression and, hence, disease risk and health. (C) 2012 Elsevier Masson SAS. All rights reserved.