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What Is Nutrigenomics and Can It Improve Your Diet?

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Photo: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock

Diet advice used to go something like this: Follow this one-size-fits-all rule (stay away from sugar, bring on the low-fat everything) to eat healthily. But according to an emerging field of science called nutrigenomics, that way of thinking is about to become as outdated as the cabbage soup diet (yes, that was really a thing). (See also: 9 Fad Diets Too Wacky to Believe)

"Nutrigenomics is the study of how genetics interact with the foods we eat," says Clayton Lewis, CEO and cofounder of Arivale, a company that uses a blood sample to analyze your genes and then pairs you with a nutritionist to explain the best eating plan for your body. "How do they work together to either make us healthier or cause disease?"

As an increasing number of at-home genetics tests will tell you, you're genetically and biochemically unique from everyone else in your gym. "This means there's no one-size-fits-all healthy diet," says Lewis.

Example: While healthy fats such as avocado or olive oil have gotten the scientific stamp of approval, some people are more prone to gain weight on a high-fat diet than others. Your genes can also impact how well you absorb nutrients like vitamin D. Even if you eat tons of D-rich salmon, certain gene variations might mean you still need a supplement.

Getting your genetic blueprint can help you figure out exactly what your body needs to be at its best. "It's really all about personalization," says Lewis. Think of old diet advice like a paper map. The information is there, but it's really hard to tell where you are in the picture. Nutrigenomics is like upgrading to Google Maps—it tells you exactly where you are, so you can get where you want to go.

"To understand nutrition and health, we need to understand how our unique biology works to keep our body in balance," says Neil Grimmer, CEO and founder of Habit, a start-up using nutrigenomics, metabolic tests, and nutritionists to help you form healthier eating habits.

You're going to start hearing about this nutrition game changer a lot more—a survey of 740 dietitians by KIND predicted that the personalized nutrition advice gleaned from the field will be one of the top five food trends of 2018. Here's what you need to know about how nutrigenomics can impact your healthy eating plan.

The Science Behind Nutrigenomics

"While the term 'nutrigenomics' became popular about 15 years ago, the idea that we respond differently to food has been around for a long time," says Grimmer. "In the first century B.C. the Latin writer Lucretius wrote, 'What is food for one man may be bitter poison to others.'"

The sequencing of the human genome turned that philosophy into something you could use. By analyzing a blood sample (Arivale uses samples collected by a local lab while Habit sends you the tools to take a small sample at home), scientists can spot biomarkers—aka genes—that impact how your body processes certain nutrients.

Take for example the FTO gene, which produces a protein that helps control your desire to wolf down everything in your fridge. "One version, or variant, of this gene,"—called FTO rs9939609, if you want to get scientific—"may predispose you to weight gain," says Grimmer. "The lab tests for this genetic biomarker and uses that information, plus your waist circumference, to assess your risk of becoming overweight."

So, while you might be fit AF now thanks to a fast metabolism and devotion to HIIT, your genes can flag any risks for potential waistline expansions in your future.

How to Put It Into Action

Thanks to a crop of new start-ups like Arivale and Habit, an at-home test or simple blood draw can give you a full report (like the one I got when I used Habit to help me switch my health philosophy from weight to wellness) to tell you exactly what to put on your plate and what foods might be potentially risky for you.

But the science is still evolving. A 2015 review of nutrigenomics research, published in Applied and Translational Genomics, pointed out that while the evidence is certainly promising, many studies lack definite associations between genes usually examined in nutrigenomics testing and some diet-related diseases. In other words, just because a nutrigenomics report identifies the FTO mutation doesn't mean you're definitely going to be overweight.

The future of nutrigenomics holds even more personalization potential. "We need to think not only about genes but also about how the proteins and other metabolites affected by your genes respond to food," says Grimmer.

This is what's known as "multi-omic" data—genomics paired with info on "metabolomics" (small molecules) and "proteomics" (proteins), explains Lewis. In plain English, it means zooming in even closer on how your love for avocado will impact your waistline and your risks for certain diseases.

Habit is already steaming ahead with multi-omic data—currently, their at-home kit can assess how your body responds to foods by comparing a fasting blood sample with samples taken after you drink a nutrient-dense shake. "Only recently have advances in molecular biology, data analysis, and nutrition science enabled us to use this data to create recommendations at a more personal level," Grimmer says. Here's to upgrading your road map for better health.

 

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