A new approach to diet and nutrition called Nutritional Genomics is gaining momentum. Nutritional Genomics or Nutrigenomics is a field of study that looks at how our genetic makeup can influence the way our bodies absorb and metabolize micronutrients. After the conclusion of The Human Genome Project in 2003, researchers have been studying the link between an individual’s unique genotype and nutrition. Experts have been looking at hyper-optimized food and how this may affect people’s health. Soon, designing a diet based on genetics may become mainstream. When this happens, we may have to modify the adage—“We are what we eat” to “What we are, we eat.”
When Nutrition meets Epigenetics
Our genes carry information about our heritage as well as our risk to certain diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes. New studies have found that our capacity to absorb micronutrients and vitamins varies for each person on a molecular level. For instance, a group of researchers and doctors discovered four gene variants. They say they may play a role in vitamin D deficiency. Inadequate supply of Vitamin D increases the risk of musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular illnesses, and certain cancer types.
Knowing which diseases a person is predisposed to allow us to incorporate lifestyle changes that can help silence genes that carry specific health risks. This is where epigenetics plays an important role in nutrigenomics. In its simplest definition, epigenetics is the study of biological mechanisms that will switch genes on to become active and turn off to become dormant.
Our lifestyle—how we exercise, when we sleep and what we eat, all create chemical modifications. All that can change the expression of our genes. With growing evidence showing that we can alter the expression of our own genes, nutrigenomics may just be the life hack we are looking for.
The Bold Impact of Nutrigenomics
The impact of a diet based on genetics can be felt significantly in the field of preventive medicine. Scholars are calling nutrigenomics the “next frontier in the postgenomic era”. Research around the field of nutrigenomics is aimed at explaining two aspects – first, how individuals have different responses to the same diets, and second, how micronutrients in food work at turning on and off specific genes. The findings around these factors will reinforce the role of food and nutrition in mitigating health problems. Advances in this field of research will give people the capability to detect and prevent dreaded diseases from occurring. Conversely, this will help improve the quality of life of people and increase lifespan.
Personalized Nutrition is Growing
While nutrigenomics is still in its early stage, a number of companies have already started looking at nutrigenomics and its application. Recently, the food giant, Nestle has joined the personalized nutrition trend through its program “Nestle Wellness Ambassador”. The program made its pilot in Japan gathering around 100,000 members. Under this wellness program, members are sent a home kit for collecting blood samples for DNA testing. The results help identify susceptibility to a common illness such as diabetes or high cholesterol. Members also receive nutrient-rich teas, smoothies, and vitamin-fortified snacks to optimize nutrient intake of participants.
Likewise, smaller companies and startup ventures are picking up on the growing trend. UK-Headquartered Fitness Genes, Ltd., helps its members by uncovering their customers’ genetic variations. Depending on fitness goals, Fitness Genes help craft a personalized training plan and a diet based on genetics for its members. DNAFit is an athlete-favorite, used by high-profile names such as Greg Rutherford and Andrew Steele.
DNAFit provides genetic insights, personalized meal plan, and a personal dietitian coach to help members achieve their fitness plans. Habit, a California-based startup took the diet-based-on-genetics game a notch higher. Apart from analyzing a person’s genetic makeup to create a personalized food plan, their service includes delivery of those ingredients to the member’s home.
One of the pioneers of personalized nutrition, Nutrigenomix sees the promise in this growing market. Nutrigenomix founder, Dr. Ahmed El-Sohemy states, “This is different from disease-based genetic testing services. Consumers are more focused on wellness and recognize that healthy eating is a big part of that.”
State of the Nutrigenomics Science
Most developments on personalized nutrition and diet based on genetics revolve around weight loss. However, the developments in this field are promising. Gradually, consumers are warming up to the idea of aligning their nutritional intake with their genetic structure. Additionally, more emerging scientific studies point to the relationship between diet and prevention of chronic diseases.
Despite the progress, nutrigenomics has been at the receiving end of numerous criticisms. Skeptics say that personalized nutrition is way too young to be offered to the public as a viable and reliable procedure. Experts claim that there is no significant change in the participants’ weight when following health regimens based on DNA tests. Moreover, lack of regulation and policies around this field raise data privacy and security issues. Consumers are suspicious of how biotechnology companies are utilizing their identity and personal blueprint.
In reality, we are what we eat; and what we eat, we are—and both hold water. On one side, it is a widely-accepted fact that what we eat influences our mood, health, and overall wellbeing. On the other hand, the rise nutrigenomics, personalized nutrition, and diet based on genetics are offering more information on how food and nutrition affect our body.