Personalised Nutrition... Where Are We At?

The idea of personalised nutrition is starting to become more relevant, as technology advances and we begin to acknowledge the potential benefits following a tailored diet could have on us. Large companies such as Nestle are using this approach to target people more individually with specific products.

Many of us are looking to be the healthiest version of ourselves. However,as we’re all so different in our genetic make-up  our response to food and nutrients are equally as different. So, what’s the solution? It could be personalised nutrition. This involves getting information on your DNA and genetic make-up in order to gain further understanding into your response to nutrients, food and disease risks.  

But what is personalised nutrition? 

Personalised nutrition (or PN) is the idea that your genes’ response to food has an impact on your risks of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even how you store weight.

In order words, the saturated fat or sugar content of a doughnut could have different effects on two different people. PN aims to use genetic information to tailor dietary advice to people in specific genetic groups. 

Let’s get a bit sciency… As an example, ‘apoe4’ is a specific type of gene that some people have. Carriers of this gene have increased risk of high cholesterol which suggests their diets should differ accordingly. Another example is the ‘ACED’ gene, where carriers have a higher risk of high blood pressure. This could suggest that carriers may wish to consume a lower salt diet.  

This idea is not dissimilar from the concept that certain genes may increase risks of certain cancers. E.g. the BRACA gene and breast cancer.

Why is this so important? 

It’s no secret that the UK population are currently in the crux of an obesity epidemic with more people overweight and obese than ever before and the rates of lifestyle-related disease such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease are rising uncontrollably. In the UK, we have 24/7 access to processed foods and our lifestyles are becoming more and more sedentary.All the current government strategies to help control health and weight (including Change 4 Life, 5-aday, the eat well plate and physical activity guidelines) are all generalised to the population. Let’s be realistic here though, I’m by no means suggesting that the government start issuing PN to every one in the population but there could be a role for it in the future.

 A current dietary trend which has grabbed headlines is intermittent fasting (IF). This is the idea that you restrict your ‘feeding times’ to set hours in the day or limit your calorie intake to 500-700kcals 2 days a week.

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Some research has suggested that the way we respond to dietary variations (in this case IF) can vary between individuals. Some people report major changes in weight or energy levels in response to IF, whereas others struggle with this philosophy of eating and end up over-compensating when they break their fast and thus resulting in negative effects such as weight gain and energy spikes and dips. 

There’s been a variety of studies assessing the feasibility of PN. Below I’ve outlined some of the pros and cons.

Pros: 

· Potential reduction in disease risk/ diagnosis or early treatment.

· Reduced cost to the NHS due to healthier lifestyles

· Improving individual’s motivation to change

· Tailored nutrition to your genetics - therefore optimising your health.

Cons: 

· Ethical issues surrounding protection of genetic information has yet to be established.

· Free versus fee-based personalised nutrition - would people be willing to pay for this extra level of tailored advice? DNA testing is expensive and therefore it is unlikely to be something that the NHS could provide to everyone, therefore it may be something that you have to pay for.

· Does everyone want to know if they are more at risk of serious diseases?

· We need to know whether people would be willing to find out this information and whether they would them be motivated to make changes based on this, before we resources go into research.

· Elitist nutrition - only those who could afford it would have access to it initially.

So can I have my DNA tested?

If you’re looking for a reliable and accurate test kit unfortuantely these don’t exist yet. There are many companies offering tests kits which are delivered to your door. As you can tell PN is an incredibly complex and underdeveloped area and a simple finger prick test isn’t reliable for the results you’re looking for. Scientists don’t yet have all the information (e.g. all the info on how genes are affected) yet so how can these start up companies?!

For now, save your pennies until science has evolved further for us to be able to carry these out effectively.

Overall, PN is an incredibly exciting area but like anything there are many draw backs and ethical issues so we shouldn’t get carried away too soon!