The Future of Dieting Could Be Based on Your Genetics

Some researchers and nutritionists believe testing individual genomes could be the key to diet success.

GeneticsResearchers say the new frontier of dieting could be in your genes. Photo via Shutterstock

The world of dieting and weight loss can be overwhelming. With options ranging from Paleo to Atkins to juice fasting, it can seem near impossible to find the plan best suited to your lifestyle. According to emerging research, that’s where nutrigenomics comes in.

This new—and controversial—science is based upon the idea of testing an individual’s genes to find out exactly what he or she should be eating for optimum health. Dr. Jose Ordovas, the senior scientist and director of the Nutrition and Genetics Laboratory and the chair of the Functional Genomics Core Scientific Advisory Committee at Tufts University, explains that nutrigenomics is the study of the relationship between an individual’s genome and the nutrients he or she is taking in. “Nutrigenomics can explain how different individuals respond differently to the same dietary exposure,” Ordovas says. “The same diet may promote increase in body weight or blood cholesterol in some individuals but not so in others, depending on their genome.”

After taking a cheek swab or saliva sample, Ordovas explains, experts can tell what an individual should be eating to lose weight, maintain overall health, and even prevent disease. From there, he says, people can be placed into sub-groups with specific nutrition plans. “[The recommendations] will come in ‘different flavors’ depending on the information provided by the individual genome,” Ordovas says. “In some cases, the solution will be to shift around the micronutrients, in others will be to play with the type of carbohydrates or fats. Conversely, for others the solution will be in the micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, and so on.”

Though Ordovas admits that the science behind nutrigenomics is still very young and needs “maturation,” he says he believes it could be instrumental to weight loss in the future. “One of the first applications I see is precisely identifying the proper diet to achieve successful and long-term weight loss in overweight and obese individuals,” he says.

Judith Mabel, a Ph.D. and registered dietitian in Boston, says nutrigenomics helps when giving her clients food plans. “They [the tests] will give you their recommendations for percent of carbohydrates, fat, and protein,” she says. Mabel also says the tests are particularly effective for holding clients accountable to their diets. “Once somebody sees it in black and white,” she says, “they’re much more likely to say, ‘A-ha, now I understand that I really have to do this.'”

Mabel says she does not rely heavily on the tests, and instead chooses to develop diet plans herself and get to know clients personally. “[Nutrigenomics] is one possible key that’s going to unlock what I want to unlock,” she says. “But my own personal opinion is that I can do a lot without it.”

Elizabeth Jarrard, another Boston-based registered dietitian, also says she doesn’t see much benefit in nutrigenomics. She does acknowledge that everyone’s body constitution is unique and some foods or diets work better for some people than others, but she says that she doesn’t believe nutrigenomics are necessary to making nutrition plans. “I think that giving your blood test and paying a lot of money for an expensive test is just kind of a waste of time,” she says.

Jarrard also says she thinks paying so much attention to hyper-specific diet plans could mean developing obsessive or disordered eating in the future. “I think that the more you start to worry about the exact percentage of carbs, and fats, and exact percentages of vitamins, it can start to lead to very obsessive and very stressful styles of eating,” she says. “I mean, if you’re obsessing and you’re stressing so much about the exact ratio of macronutrients, you’re not going to get the benefits of what those macronutrients are.”

Ordovas is considered one of the primary nutrigenomics researchers in the field, and even he admits that the tests probably aren’t feasible for the mainstream, at least at their current level of development. So if not nutrigenomics, what does the average person trying to lose weight need? Ordovas says it’s simple: common sense. “The key to prevent obesity and to eat healthier for the majority of the population is not in nutrigenomics, but in education and solid nutritional information.”

So while we’re the first to say that the idea of knowing exactly what will make you look like Gisele Bundchen in your bikini is appealing, we have our doubts. Even though books on the topic are already on shelves and TV experts like Dr. Oz are all over it, we say call us in a couple years. For now, we’ll stick to the good, old-fashioned food pyramid, just like always.