We Really Are What We Eat: Nutrition Gets Personal

We Really Are What We Eat: Nutrition Gets Personal

By: David Heber, M.D., Ph.D., F.A.C.P., F.A.S.N., Chairman, Herbalife Nutrition Institute

Take a tour of any large grocery store and it would seem we have “everything” we could want to eat, row after row of food offering something for everyone. After all, the average number of items carried in a supermarket last year was almost 39,000, according to the Food Marketing Institute.

But is having so many food options to choose from helping us get healthier?

As the latest Dietary Guidelines (2015-2020) for Americans reported, rates of chronic, diet-related diseases have risen due to our lifestyle behaviors, leading us to question if we’re making the healthiest choices.

Consider this sobering statistic — approximately half of adult Americans have one or more preventable chronic diseases, many related to poor eating habits and lack of physical activity. The costs to the economy and to us individually are staggering as public health care costs continue to rise.

In order to eat healthier, we have to start at the individual level. Consider that the emerging field of personalized medicine embraces the concept that medical treatment should be tailored to the individual characteristics, needs and preferences of each patient. Similarly , personalized nutrition espouses that what we eat should be tailored to who and what we are, and to the ways we absorb and metabolize our food.

Personal Food Arsenals

The idea that the same foods don’t do the same things for “every body” is garnering more attention. For example, a study published in the August 2016 International Journal of Epidemiology found that participants in personalized nutrition groups improved their eating patterns significantly compared to those in the control group, otherwise known as the one-size-fits-all group. Ultimately, that meant the people in the personalized group ate a healthier diet based on their own individual needs.

Online, more than 1,000 Europeans joined one of three groups for personalized nutrition based on:

Surprisingly, participants had marked improvements no matter which group they were in. Because all reporting and interaction took place on the web, researchers optimistically suggested that this type of approach could result in major public health benefits down the line if applied to general populations.

What Your Genes Mean

The authors of a 2011 review in Journal of Nutrigenetics and Nutrigenomics explain that better health outcomes can be achieved if nutritional requirements are customized for each individual. This would mean taking into consideration both his or her inherited and acquired genetic characteristics depending on life stage, dietary preferences and health status.

An early, key research paper in the journal of Personalized Medicine laid the groundwork for the basic concepts that confirm diet and genomes interact.  Your genome is your complete set of genetic instructions or DNA. DNA is also considered a “long molecule,” is composed of four different chemicals and is “read” by a technique called genome sequencing. Genomics studies all the DNA in an organism.

Personalized medicine involves the study of nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics. Think of nutrigenomics as the science of how food we eat affects genes and nutrigenetics as how genes affect that food.

Personal Choices Matter

The authors of the paper suggest that life stage, environment and lifestyle all have an impact. They also acknowledge the role in nutrition of personal preferences, individual experiences, sensory acuity, cultural habits and one’s personal economic situation. So personal choices include:

The choices we make regarding what we eat are individual choices that should be reflective of our personal needs. There are many factors at play, but what’s most important is that you understand those factors and do your best to create a meal plan that works for you.