Can Nutrigenomics Revolutionize Your Health?

As we learn more and more about how our genes influence our health, it’s becoming increasingly clear that food affects each person in unique ways. That’s the focus of an emerging field called nutrigenomics: the study of how nutrition impacts us on a genetic level, and how our food choices could alter the very function of our genes.

According to proponents of nutrigenomics, this science could pave the way for more personalized—and, in turn, more effective—advice on how and what to eat. To that end, genetic testing could one day determine which specific foods may help you achieve better weight control and greater protection against chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

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Health Advantages

Thanks in part to ongoing nutrigenomics research, we now understand that individual variations in our genetic makeup play a role in factors like appetite, metabolism, blood sugar response, and the formation of fat cells. Due to this genetic variation, generalized dietary advice may only go so far in helping us to maintain our health and manage our weight.

In fact, it’s thought that the lack of more personalized, nuanced dietary advice may contribute to our continuing failure to tackle such issues as the obesity epidemic. By replacing one-size-fits-all recommendations with a genetically tailored approach to nutrition, proponents suggest, individuals may be more likely to stick to that advice and attain long-lasting wellness.

The Science

At this point, there’s a lack of large-scale, long-term studies looking at the effectiveness of nutrigenomics-based dietary advice. Still, a growing body of research indicates that genetically based personalized diets could improve your health.

This research includes a study published in the journal Cell in 2015, which found that personalized nutrition may help with blood sugar control (a key factor in the prevention and management of diabetes).

For this study, researchers began by collecting data on 800 people over the course of a week. The data were gathered through a variety of methods, including blood sugar monitoring, blood tests, health questionnaires, and self-reported information on food intake. In analyzing these data, the researchers found that different study members showed vastly different blood-sugar responses to the same foods (and that these individual responses stayed consistent from day to day).

As an example of their findings on the individualized effects of certain foods, the study’s authors point to a middle-aged study participant with obesity and pre-diabetes. While this participant had included tomatoes in her diet as part of her efforts to eat healthily, tests conducted during the study showed that consuming tomatoes actually caused her blood sugar to spike.

Once the first phase of this study was completed, researchers developed an algorithm to predict personalized blood-sugar response to “real-life meals.” Next, the research team placed 26 additional study participants on customized, genetically based diets. Results revealed that following this personalized dietary advice helped to reduce the participants’ post-meal blood sugar levels.

There’s also some evidence that genetically based dietary advice could lead to greater improvements in eating habits, compared to more generalized dietary recommendations. In a 2014 study published in the journal PLoS One, for instance, researchers assigned 138 healthy young adults to two study groups: one that received DNA-based dietary advice for four different dietary components (intake of caffeine, sodium, vitamin C, and sugar), and one that received standard dietary advice for the same components.

After three months, those given DNA-based dietary advice began to show improvements in their diets. After 12 months, those improvements were even more significant. For example, study participants who were informed that they carried a version of a gene linked to salt intake and high blood pressure reduced their sodium intake to a greater degree, compared to those who received standard advice for sodium intake.

In addition, a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that genetically based nutrition may help promote weight loss by targeting obesity-related genetic traits.

Personalized Nutrition

In recent years, a number of companies have begun offering personalized dietary counseling based on genetic testing. However, experts in the field of nutrigenomics caution that such advice may not be scientifically sound. Because interactions between nutrients and the genome are so complex, a great deal more research is needed to understand how nutrigenomics might help you build a better diet.

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  1. Zeevi D, Korem T, Zmora N, et al. Personalized nutrition by prediction of glycemic responsesCell. 2015;163(5):1079-1094. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2015.11.001

  2. Nielsen DE, El-Sohemy A. Disclosure of genetic information and change in dietary intake: a randomized controlled trial. DeAngelis MM, ed. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(11):e112665. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112665

  3. Celis-Morales C, Marsaux CFM, Livingstone KM, Navas-Carretero S. Can genetic-based advice help you lose weight? Findings from the Food4Me European randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2017;105(5):1204–1213. doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.145680

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