Which foods are best for your specific health profile? Personalizing your diet may help provide optimal health and prevent illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and obesity. A myriad of companies can create customized diets based on our genetic makeup and microbiomes...but do they really work?
We live in a world where we can submit a cheek swab to find our long-lost ancestors, test us for genetic predispositions and diseases, have customized supplements and vitamins delivered monthly to our door, and even have beauty boxes curated based on our skin type. Despite this, we also live in a time where chronic illness plagues millions of Americans. Can we prevent these diseases by targeting our individual health concerns? Personalized Nutrition may be one way to tackle this issue.
Taking Nutrition Personally
If you’ve ever taken a DNA test to find out which diseases you may genetically be more susceptible to, the results can be daunting. However, we can find relief and control of our health through epigenetics. The study of epigenetics shows how our diet and lifestyle can influence which genes are unlocked, keeping unwanted genetic predispositions at bay if we eat, sleep, and exercise well and have strong, positive relationships. Therefore, our inherited DNA doesn’t have to be our destiny. And personalized nutrition may be a way to help us take control of our well-being and longevity.
We have become increasingly aware that “healthy” does not mean the same thing to everyone. When I eat a high-carbohydrate meal before a run, I feel weighed down and groggy. But if I have fruit, I feel powered up and energetic. However, my husband must eat high-carb meals prior to a rigorous workout since his body needs those calories as an immediate fuel source. Personalized Nutrition is based on the simple truth that each person’s body responds differently to nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
Research provided by iSelect Fund illustrates chronic disease as a very real and growing health problem afflicting millions of Americans. Research institutions like the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute all highlight this growing challenge. With up to 20% of cancer-related deaths correlated to poor nutrition, and 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. suffering from obesity, there has never been a more dire need to focus on our individual nutrition.
Scientific Wellness: A Basis for Personal Nutrition
Nathan Price, Institute for System Biology, addresses personalized nutrition in a clinical setting. He focuses on how our body processes and reacts to nutrition and its complex molecular intricacies. His research shows that nutrition contributes to at least 50% of our health, while genetics only accounts for 30%.
Price and other experts in the field are creating “scientific wellness” programs. These programs use massive databases to quantify wellness and predict the needs of the participants to combat the link between chronic illness and nutrition. Below are some emerging companies in the personalized nutrition space – each one based on a different set of analytics. They either measure your gut health, your DNA, your blood, and/or your personal wellness via questionnaire. Some even track your daily activity levels.
The burgeoning Personalized Nutrition space is due for continued growth as databases mature and results are achieved. Click here to download image.
What Do The Different Modalities Provide?
DNA/Cheek Swab. Each human is made up of a unique set of 23 chromosomes, otherwise known as your DNA. By swabbing your cheek, you provide a DNA sample that has information about everything, from your nutrient levels, hormones, food sensitivities, and allergies. These measurements can indicate disruption in digestion, cardiometabolic health, energy levels, sleep patterns, and much more. While DNA is considered a static measurement, unlike your weight or cholesterol levels, it is a jumping off point for a nutritional plan.
Blood Sample. Often measured in conjunction with your DNA, blood tests can measure a number of biomarkers like vitamin and mineral levels, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels and key nutrient levels that can be leading identifiers in determining your risks of chronic illnesses—like diabetes or kidney disorders.
As Inside Tracker calls it, a blood test is a “selfie from the inside.” Blood can show a trend toward normalcy or if values are out of the clinically normal range. Interventions can then be made through nutritional recommendations and changes. This measurement, unlike DNA samples, is ever-changing and can be a good read on progress as it relates to dietary improvements.
Stool Sample. Stool primarily investigates your gastrointestinal (GI) condition, including your gut microbiome. A stool culture will check for the presence of abnormal bacteria and digestive enzyme levels.
Stool samples reveal the amount of beneficial bacteria in the GI tract, which can help diagnose intestinal dysfunction without invasive procedures. Other markers present in stool tests can identify pathogens that may indicate issues with immune function and overall intestinal health.
Any abnormal microorganisms present in the stool culture are likely causing stress to the GI tract. Research has shown that the relationship between the GI tract and neurological, hepatic and immune function is highly correlated. For instance, if your stool culture results showed excessive yeast production, a major concern is “brain fog”, a condition that occurs when excess yeast byproducts pass through the blood-brain barrier and alters your neurological function, causing learning challenges and behavioral problems.
D2D’s Personal Experiences
To better understand how these personalized nutrition programs work and given our interest in both soil microbiomes and gut microbiomes, Hillary and I decided to try DayTwo to gain some first-hand experience. We sent in our sample, then downloaded the DayTwo app on our phones and our personalized results were populated. They displayed the results of how complete meals, or the combination of foods we eat in one sitting, affect our personal health.
I found the app extremely user-friendly, and that the program was informative for my dietary decisions. Hillary, on the other hand, was more interested in an in-depth report on the types of foods best and worst for her body and how these foods will affect her energy levels and digestion, which DayTwo doesn’t really provide. But, upon request, DayTwo sent Hillary her unique microbiome report, which was full of super-helpful information on her gut’s microbiotic profile.
Lucy tried the Vitagene DNA Health Testing kit, which used saliva as a sample. Lucy said the results were interesting…at first. The Vitagene results reported her genetics as they pertain to skin, diet, exercise, and general genetic traits, such as the ability to hold onto certain micronutrients. The report even gave her a 5-day recommended meal plan that included a lot of Greek yogurt, which she assumed is because of her increased likelihood of low calcium levels. It also included a recommended supplement plan she could purchase from Vitagene.
But the information in the report also showed some inconsistencies and flawed information. For instance, Lucy read that she had the unwanted obesity gene, so she did a bit of research on the particular gene and found that it had nothing to do with obesity, but signaled potential brain disorders – not a great gene, either. So she looked up another gene that Vitagene indicated made her prone to muscle soreness, only to find out the gene actually expresses itself as diabetes. Lucy stopped reading and looking up genes. Her takeaway? If one is truly interested in a genetic profile, stay away from these ‘over the internet’ tests and go see a doctor who specializes in genetics.
Challenges to Personalized Nutrition
While this is a budding and important field for our health, it is not an exact science. Because the cost of DNA sequencing has dropped from the thousands to the hundreds of dollars, it is cheaper and easier than ever. Yet the challenge lies in what to do with all this information.
Millions of samples need to be correlated and analyzed to find out the optimal health standard and how it differs among individuals. Also, our diet’s effect on epigenetics leads us to questions about the role ancestry plays in health and how our genes work together. Complications like these make it difficult for these companies to stay at the forefront, let alone even stay afloat, as evidenced by uBiome’s bankrupty in September 2019.
We also need to recognize that blood and stool samples reflect results in just one moment in time. Because the results can sometimes take weeks, the data might be irrelevant by the time you received your customized nutrition plan. The DNA saliva sample is more a comparison of your DNA matched with what foods are good for you to eat. But again, the database needs to be in the billions to exactly correlate which foods go with which DNA.
We know there are limitations to science, and as Timothy Morck, President and Founder at Spectrum Nutrition LLC told us, we should look for companies that conduct follow-up testing. The true test of success with a personalized nutrition service is its long-term service. How do the results look three months from now, and again six months from now? Be sure the information is consistently analyzed to adapt your program to maximize your results.
“As a call to action to the scientists in this space, we must build a cause and effect database, not an association database. We must show consumers who use our products, and thus our recommendations, that we have tangible outcomes. Get some real data through real evidence.”
-Timothy Morck, President and Founder at Spectrum Nutrition LLC
Starting any diet has its considerations. If you’re looking for a first step to better your overall health, the American Heart Association provides a wealth of fundamental recommendations beneficial to everyone. And, if and when you’re ready to take the next step to a personalized nutrition program, be sure to consult your physician first.
The Bottom Line:
If you are going to customize one thing about your lifestyle, focus on your personal health and consider implementing a personalized nutrition service that’s tailored to your body’s needs. But take it with a grain of salt as the full spectrum of human genetic data is not known yet. With the emerging technologies in this space and an increasing scientific database of results, we look forward to more growth in this exciting sector.