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Towards the end of the Second World War, something unprecedented happened in modern Europe: a famine. Operation Market Garden, the Allies’ attempt to push across the Rhine in September 1944, had failed, and in retaliation for Dutch collusion the Nazis blockaded towns across the western Netherlands for more than six months. The resultant food shortages – known as the Dutch Hongerwinter – were severe: with just 580 calories of food per person per day, over 22,000 people died from malnutrition, and thousands of babies were born badly underweight.

When scientific researchers analysed the meticulous Dutch medical records decades later, they could see the health effects of prenatal exposure to famine: that the infants who survived were more susceptible to health problems. But they also found a curious anomaly: that these children’s own children – born years later, and well fed – were also significantly underweight. The famine had, it seemed, “scarred” the victims’ DNA.

Which was surprising. After all, for decades we’ve all been told: you are what you eat. You are what you drink. You are how much, or...