The Buzz

The Buzz: Nutrigenomics

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What’s the buzz?
Your food choices can help or hinder you in reaching your genetic potential.

What does the science say?
An emerging form of nutrition science called nutrigenomics may help health professionals create personalized nutrition plans based on your specific genome (a.k.a. your complete set of genes). The Human Genome Project found that for all humans, our DNA is 99 percent identical. The 1 percent variation of our genes is most noticeable in our physical appearance, but it turns out that we also differ in our disease risk, the way we respond to drugs and medications — and how our bodies respond to the food and nutrients we ingest.

A quick science lesson (hang in there, we promise this will be worth it!): The DNA in our cells read like sentences. These sentences, called genes, provide the instructions to make the tens of thousands of proteins that make up our bodies. But sometimes our DNA sentences are missing a letter or a word is out of place, which explains some genetic variations. Most research in this area has focused on variations that cause disease, such as sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis, but more recently scientists have discovered that these variations can mean that our bodies respond to nutrients differently. For example, some individuals have a gene that causes them to metabolize caffeine slower than normal, possibly putting them at an increased risk of high blood pressure or a heart attack if too much caffeine is consumed. That’s the foundation of nutrigenomics. Some health professionals believe that this information could help athletes perform better, identify food sensitivities, and help us improve (or even prevent) many health conditions. However, the research is still preliminary.

While we might all appreciate advice tailored specifically to our needs, a meta-analysis of 18 studies concluded that communicating genetic risk showed no significant difference in behavior change than generalized nutrition advice.  What’s that mean?  Behavior change is difficult and personalized advice based on your DNA may not be the jump start you need to create lasting habits.

What’s the takeaway?
Although initial findings are promising, more research is needed before nutrigenomics becomes the norm. Right now, companies advertising personalized nutrition based on genetic testing are backed by little scientific evidence and aren’t regulated through the FDA or medical boards. So instead of shelling out for a mail-order genetics assessment, make behavior changes based on scientifically backed guidance such as eating more plants, getting regular exercise, and managing stress. Can’t resist the technology? Some dietitians are starting to use this type of testing in their practice, so if you’re curious about pursuing this avenue, find a registered dietitian who has some experience with this type of testing to get the most out of your investment.

Learn more about the future of nutrigenomics here.