Iconic actress and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn, star of 60s movies such as Breakfast at Tiffanys and My Fair Lady was famous for her beauty and waiflike figure as much as her acting roles. And it is this waiflike stature or at least the cause of it, that scientists are now connecting with obesity.
Rather than being on some celebrity diet or torturing herself with inadequate nutrition and excessive exercise regimes as today’s celebrities do, Audrey Hepburn’s figure was a result of poor health having spent a long period in hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland during the second world war. A period that involved a long stretch of what amounted to near starvation.
A leading scientist, Dr Nessa Carey says that this period of malnutrition may have permanently altered Hepburn’s genes and this genetic disruption could be linked to the modern health issues such as obesity and diabetes.
Hepburn was famous for her narrow waist and tiny frame, long before Kate Mossand other super models made it fashionable to be underweight, and it is thought that the period of deprivation during the war that finally led to her death at the age of 63, after a lifetime of ill health and frailty. In the 1940s Audrey Hepburn was living in the Netherlands when Nazis invaded the country. Between November 1944 and May 1945, a period referred to in Dutch history as’ the hunger winter’, people endured a dreadful period of austerity and near starvation, which caused mass malnutrition and led to the deaths of approximately 18,000 people. During this period, a sixteen-year-old Hepburn survived by eating tulip bulbs and making ‘bread’ using grass as the main ingredient, as she hid from Nazi soldiers in a cellar. Her much lauded figure was a legacy borne of malnutrition, anaemia and jaundice, rather than a Hollywood diet. She also suffered with blood disorders and respiratory problems that bothered her throughout her life, eventually leading to her death in 1993.
“After living for years under the Germans, you swore you would never complain about anything again,” the actress once said. British biologist and senior lecturer at Imperial College, London – Dr Carey – has written a book suggesting that Hepburn’s poor health and slight figure was a result of genetic changes brought on by her awful experience during the war. He calls these changes ‘epigenetics’.
Dr Carey describes how the genes we are born with are not necessary pre-set for the duration of our lives. Some can be epigenetically altered by circumstances, our environment and our diets.
The case of Audrey Hepburn is just one of thousands who endured the hunger winter and because of exceptional records maintained by the Dutch, it has been possible to reveal vital clues about the awful damage that malnutrition and unhealthy diets can wreak on the human body. The records that span a period of five decades have allowed experts to establish links between poor nutrition in childhood and coronary heart disease in adulthood, possibly due to changes in metabolism as a result of inadequate nutrition. The babies of hunger winter survivors whilst normal in size at birth, had a tendency to inherit problems such as obesity in later life and increased susceptibility to dementia in old age. And even the grandchildren of survivors were at risk.
It is fortunate that, for now at least, such a period of austerity as suffered by Audrey Hepburn and thousands of others, is unlikely to happen in the name of war. But young women and men are starving themselves in the name of fashion and aesthetics and this is considered normal and is made worse by the media.
If malnutrition can have such a negative effect generations to come, then all the more reason for young women to eat healthy food in adequate quantities.
Whilst it is too late for us to have any effect on the diets our mothers consumed whilst they were pregnant with us, we can still adopt a healthy diet high in green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, to help protect us against any problems we may have inherited from our parents and grandparents and to protect our children and grandchildren.
Dr Nessa Carey, is the author of The Epigenetics Revolution. The book concludes by telling us that adhering to a healthy lifestyle is not just about ourselves anymore. It is our duty to protect future generations.
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