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Diets are like potato chips — the industry can’t launch just one. The popularity of early calorie-counting programs spawned a number of plans involving counters, cards, and points. The latest trend asks dieters to dig deep — way deep — to see what nutrition and weight-loss advice might be hidden in their genes. This newest entry was introduced in March of 2019, when a company named Digital Wellness unveiled the DNA Diet.
What is the DNA Diet?
The DNA Diet is the latest dietary strategy to emerge in the last few years — others include Habit, Helix, and Nutrigenomix — based on genetic testing.
The DNA Diet uses genetic information gathered by the 23andMe take-home test kit ($199). Users connect their 23andMe accounts to the DNA Diet, which scans for more than 100 biomarkers related to dietary processes, distilling the information into 20 themed “insights.”
For example, the “Protein” report looks at the FTO gene to determine if a genotype is present that suggests higher sensitivity to the satiating effect of dietary protein. If it’s absent, the test notes the user might need to consume more to feel full at mealtime. “Hangry” examines the CDAC3 gene, which Digital Wellness claims is associated with a low mood when fasting. If the relevant marker is missing, an intermittent-fasting meal plan is suggested.
Other tests look at genetic predispositions toward emotional eating, alcohol tolerance, and the metabolism of salt and lactose. “This is the future, in terms of putting consumers’ health back in their own hands,” says Scott Penn, who founded the DNA Diet after 25 years in the industry; he was a global vice president of Weight Watchers and worked on the Australian version of The Biggest Loser.
“For years, we’ve been relying on the medical fraternity to help drive behavior change in individuals. But the fact is, it’s up to the individual to do it themselves,” Penn continues.
Does the DNA Diet work?
DNA-based diets have been controversial. In 2017, Stanford researchers assigned 609 overweight adults to diets based on their genetic tendencies to metabolize carbs and fats. The researchers concluded that study subjects whose diets “matched” their genes didn’t lose any more weight than subjects who were mismatched.
Some experts say the DNA-diet connection isn’t developed enough to serve as the backbone of an eating plan. “The science is still in its infancy,” says Openfit Nutrition Manager and registered dietitian Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD. “Which is not to say it won’t get there. But there are so many genes, and the ways in which they act are complicated. We’re just not at a place where we can prescribe a specific diet based on genes.”
She adds: “There are just too many other factors that come into play when it comes to weight loss to boil it all down to your genetics. There’s your emotional status, how you eat, how you interact with your environment, the impact of social situations etc…”
Penn stands by the science behind the DNA Diet. The site partners with the Mayo Clinic to access their research, and new findings will be incorporated into the program. “There are 2,000 papers published around DNA every year. It will be a constant evolution for us, and we will continue to refine and enhance as we go. It’s pretty exciting.” His stance is that more information is better than less: “The more insights you can give people, the better they do” with weight loss, he says.
Dr. Charles Passler, DC, a nutritionist in New York City, has seen mixed results so far. “Some individuals have shown that following recommendations based on genetic testing can be helpful in weight loss and overall health. There are also other individuals that have not seen any benefit in the dietary guidelines based on the testing,” he says.
“The challenge is that we are only at the beginning stages of understanding the connection of genes to the diet/obesity/wellness connection and employing lifestyle recommendations. Genes may very well play a role in individual dietary guidelines. The research may need a bit more time to make it as simple as, ‘Test your genes, eat this, don’t eat that, and be healthy.’ Researchers are continuing to discover new genes that need to be evaluated into the current model.”
Ultimately, Passler says that if you’re interested in trying a DNA diet, it should be considered an item in your weight-loss arsenal, not a magic bullet. “There may be a day when you are able to take a sample, send it to a lab and get a 100 percent reliable report to determine the best diet for each individual,” he says. “The future looks promising; we are just not there yet. Using genetic testing as one tool of many to determine the best plan for each individual is the best approach.”
Other DNA Diet Testing Brands
Users submit three blood samples and a DNA swab through Habit’s proprietary kit; the company analyzes their genotype and phenotype (environmental influences), providing nutritional advice, coaching, and recipes.
This DNA-testing company offers a wide range of diet- and wellness-related tests: Lose It! + embodyDNA ($59.99) provides weight loss recommendations, Food Sensitivity+ ($159.99) which, according to Helix analyzes how well a user digests and absorbs nutrients, and Metabolism+ ($89.99), which the company claims surfaces hormone levels and what an individuals’ genes say about their metabolism.
Administered in branded clinics, according to the company these tests analyze what 45 genetic markers suggest about your weight, metabolism and cardiometabolic health. Fitness and fertility tests are also available.
Cost: About $400