Have you ever wished you could take a simple test and get results that laid out your perfect diet? That’s the promise of the emerging field of science called nutrigenomics.
For as long as most of us can remember, a new diet trend invariably makes the rounds every so often, yielding great results for some but disappointment for others. For example, you may have had friends try a low-carb diet and watched it work for them, only to feel sluggish, tired, and maybe even heavier after trying it yourself.
But with nutrigenomics (nutrition + genetics), we now know that a chief reason why we respond differently to various diets may be our unique genetic code. Just because Joe loses 20 pounds doing keto, doesn’t mean Jenny will too. That’s because their genes help dictate the ideal food and macronutrient mix for their specific body types.
Joe, Jenny: This is for you.
What Is Nutrigenomics?
Nutrigenomics is a scientific field that explores the relationship between genes and diet. Dr. Michael Nova MD, chief innovation officer and founder of Pathway OME, which offers nutrigenomics testing, says, “It is a flat-out certainty that your genes affect your diet, and your diet has effects on genes (i.e. it can can turn certain genes on and off).”
With a simple cheek swab test, scientists can identify genes that influence how we metabolize, absorb, and process certain nutrients. And that’s not all that nutrigenomics can tell us about our diets. By examining our genes, we can now also determine which behavioral factors might impact our eating habits, and even which supplements may be most effective for us.
Knowing the type of dietary pattern that may work well for you can help with weight management, health optimization and much more. It may even help to prevent or manage conditions like diabetes or heart disease. Nutrigenomics testing holds the promise of personalized nutrition that could be much more likely to work for you than stabbing around in the dark with the latest fad diet.
The study of nutrient and gene interactions is still relatively new, so it’s not without some controversy. While there is strong evidence for some diet and gene associations, others are not as strong. As a result, some experts feel that the field of nutrigenomics is still too new and more research should be done before it goes mainstream.
The interaction of our genes, lifestyle, and environment is highly complex, so prescribing a diet based on genes alone is tricky. Other factors, like clinical lab values, dietary preferences, and the willingness and ability to implement changes, need to be taken into account.
“One thing I’m almost certain of is that whatever findings come from nutrigenomics, they will still favor whole, plant-based foods,” says Krista Maguire, RD, CSSD, and nutrition manager at Openfit. “In addition, the ability to provide actionable, personalized nutrition won’t stray too far from the current recommendations when it comes to highly processed, sugar-laden foods.”
What Can Nutrigenomics Tell You About Your Genes?
There are hundreds of genes that can potentially help determine the best diet for you. For instance, one of the most well-studied obesity genes, called FTO, has been known to scientists for decades. People who have certain variants of the FTO gene are much more likely to be obese. However, a 2017 study of children who carry the gene showed that this can likely be mitigated by changes in diet.
According to Dr. Nova, the differences in weight between people can be attributed about 40 percent to genes and 60 percent to environment and lifestyle. And he says obesity has an even stronger hereditary component: anywhere from 40-60 percent is due to genetic predisposition.
In addition to weight, genes have been identified that determine how we absorb nutrients (such as Vitamin D), how our appetite and satiety are regulated (possibly explaining why you feel more hangry than your colleagues at lunchtime), and how our body responds to different kinds of exercise, to name a few.
That said, it’s important to remember that simply carrying certain genetic variants doesn’t mean they’ll be expressed. Genes are just part of the equation and not necessarily our destiny. The expression of genes — how they turn “on” and “off” — is affected by numerous factors such as the foods we eat, how much we sleep, the environment in which we live, and even our stress levels.
How to Start Eating According to Your Genes
A nutrigenomics test can help to determine which type of eating pattern best suits your genetic profile: should you stick to a diet lower in carbs, or should you stay away from extra fats? Maybe you should eat a balance of all macros? Or perhaps eating more omega-3s is particularly beneficial for your genes. Finding what works can take some experimentation, but with nutrigenomics the process is becoming easier and more streamlined.
But before you go too far down the rabbit hole, make sure you work with a qualified expert, like a dietitian or physician trained in interpreting nutrigenomics test results, to ensure you understand their implications and how they should be applied to your lifestyle. Studies have actually shown that testing with professional guidance yields better outcomes than testing performed without it.
How Will Nutrigenomics Help in the Future?
Nutrigenomics is already changing the future of nutrition. With new research surfacing every day, the field is improving and growing.
It’s clear that every person is unique in their nutritional needs, and personalization is the ultimate expression of that. Nutrigenomics not only gives us insight into our genetic predispositions, but it can also improve the motivation for behavior change; people feel better when they’re confident that what they do will get them to where they want to be.