Dietary and lifestyle factors of DNA methylation

Methods Mol Biol. 2012;863:359-76. doi: 10.1007/978-1-61779-612-8_23.


Lifestyle factors, such as diet, smoking, physical activity, and body weight management, are known to constitute the majority of cancer causes. Epigenetics has been widely proposed as a main mechanism that mediates the reversible effects of dietary and lifestyle factors on carcinogenesis. This chapter reviews human studies on potential dietary and lifestyle determinants of DNA methylation. Apart from a few prospective investigations and interventions of limited size and duration, evidence mostly comes from cross-sectional observational studies and supports some associations. Studies to date suggest that certain dietary components may alter genomic and gene-specific DNA methylation levels in systemic and target tissues, affecting genomic stability and transcription of tumor suppressors and oncogenes. Most data and supportive evidence exist for folate, a key nutritional factor in one-carbon metabolism that supplies the methyl units for DNA methylation. Other candidate bioactive food components include alcohol and other key nutritional factors of one-carbon metabolism, polyphenols and flavonoids in green tea, phytoestrogen, and lycopene. Some data also support a link of DNA methylation with physical activity and energy balance. Effects of dietary and lifestyle exposures on DNA methylation may be additionally modified by common genetic variants, environmental carcinogens, and infectious agents, an aspect that remains largely unexplored. In addition, growing literature supports that the environmental conditions during critical developmental stages may influence later risk of metabolic disorders in part through persistent programming of DNA methylation. Further research of these modifiable determinants of DNA methylation will improve our understanding of cancer etiology and may present certain DNA methylation markers as attractive surrogate endpoints for prevention research. Considering the plasticity of epigenetic marks and correlated nature of lifestyle factors, more longitudinal studies of healthy individuals of varying age, sex, and ethnic groups are warranted, ideally with comprehensive data collection on various lifestyle factors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Animals
  • Body Weight
  • Continental Population Groups
  • DNA Methylation / genetics*
  • DNA Methylation / physiology
  • Diet*
  • Ethanol
  • Folic Acid
  • Genomic Instability / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Life Style*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Sex Factors
  • Smoking


  • Ethanol
  • Folic Acid