IS THE FUTURE OF NUTRITION PERSONALIZED? 5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT NUTRIGENOMICS

Your genetic blueprint is what makes you unique, but can it tell you how foods can influence your health? Understand how nutrigenomics can help you stay informed, and what it may mean for the future.


BY: MASCHA DAVIS, MPH, RDN

Up until a few years ago, genetic testing was barely discussed in the nutrition world. While genetic testing is widely accepted for prenatal screening and cancer prevention, the field of nutrition has not really benefited from genetic testing until recently.

Today, there is wide agreement that our genes influence weight, vitamin absorption, metabolism and other nutrition-related mechanisms. As a result, more and more nutrigenomics research is being used to explore how certain diets and nutrient factors have an impact on people’s health. Let’s answer some some of the most fundamental questions around this cutting edge technology.

1. What exactly is nutrigenomics?

It is the science of the relationships between the human genome and nutrition. The goal of nutrigenomics is to understand how the body responds to nutrients based on genetic factors. We all carry certain genes but express them differently, and how these genetic variants are expressed and function in our bodies determine which diseases we are predisposed to, how our body responds to nutrients, and how we respond to exercise. There are even certain behavioral traits encoded in our genes, such as feelings of intense hunger or food desire.

2. How exactly is nutrigenomics being used?

Nutrigenomics has already changed the field of nutrition as we move from a one-fits-all approach towards one that is highly personalized. Everybody is unique and so we should acknowledge this when making nutrition recommendations. Dr. Michael Nova, co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer at Pathway Ome, says “now with genetics, clinicians have a lot more granular data available to help make decisions.”

Who is the testing for? Dr. Ahmed El-Sohemy, the founder of Nutrigenomix and Professor and Canada Research Chair in Nutrigenomics who recently spoke at the American College of Nutrition conference in Seattle, states that “anyone who eats and drinks and is concerned about their health is a candidate for a nutrigenomics test. However, these tests should not be viewed as a cure or treatment for any health condition.”

3. Why is personalized nutrition important?

With the media constantly communicating highly confusing and contradictory messages about health, many people are insecure about what to eat, when to eat it and how much to eat. With one source saying coffee is extraordinarily healthy, and another saying it worsens blood pressure and blood sugar levels, it’s no surprise that most people decide to ignore these messages after a while. Personalized nutrition can share insightful answers on why everyone tolerates nutrients in different ways.

4. How can the information be used to understand our health?

Your health is connected to the way your nutrients are biochemically processed within your body. The results from a nutrigenomics test can share information on the probability of how your body metabolizes and processes certain nutrients. It’s important to distinguish that this does not determine what your body actually does.

For example, it can help you understand how likely you are to be sensitive to caffeine, what type of exercise suits you best, and which vitamins you are more likely to be deficient in.  Fatty acid metabolism can also inform people of the types of poly- or mono-unsaturated fats that they may need for optimal health.

Dr. Nova explains, “We now know a lot about how lipid genes turn off and on depending on diet; and how lipids like Omega-3’s are metabolized because of certain genes. In addition, it is an absolute fact that when it comes to weight, there is a 60% hereditary component which is based primarily on diet.”

5. What are some common genes that are tested?

There are hundreds of genes that can be tested for. Some of the most common ones include the FTO and MC4R genes, which are associated with obesity and predisposition to higher BMI. The ADIPOQ gene determines how likely you are to regain weight.

Do you have a sweet tooth? That’s probably because of a variation in the T1R gene, which can make some people more likely to crave sweet foods. And then there is TAS2R38, which makes you more sensitive to bitter taste.

Another interesting gene is CYP1A2, which encodes for caffeine metabolism. As Dr. El-Sohemy explains: “Those who had the version of the gene that makes them ‘slow’ metabolizers of caffeine had an increased risk of a heart attack when they consumed more than two cups of coffee per day.

Those who had the version of this gene that made them ‘fast’ metabolizers had a lower risk of heart attacks when they consumed about two cups of coffee per day.

Some people think they can ‘feel’ if they are slow metabolizers because they know that a cup of coffee in the afternoon tends to keep them up all night. But there is no link between these immediate, physiological effects of caffeine that we can feel, with the metabolic effects in the liver that we can’t feel. The only way to know is by a genetic test.”

Our genes have the capacity to share powerful insights into our optimal diets and explain certain behaviors. For some, it may help them feel empowered to make changes in their lifestyle and behaviors because they no longer view certain outcomes as a personal failure, but rather a propensity that’s encoded in their DNA.

With a better understanding of themselves, it may help them feel more motivated to stick to their personalized plan, create long-lasting changes, and ultimately,

Have a healthier future.

HEADER IMAGE: ZACH WARD

Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN is a nationally-recognized media spokesperson and private practice dietitian based in Los Angeles, who shares her love of health and wellness through a unique global perspective. From world-class U.S. medical centers to rural villages in Africa, Mascha has dedicated herself to traveling the world, spreading her love of holistic health through both her humanitarian work and private practice. Learn more at Nomadista Nutrition.

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