The New Nutrition: “Less generic, more genetic”

 I still remember when I was first working and I had to discuss a cardiac diet with a man who had returned to the hospital with a blocked artery only a few months after having a multiple bypass heart operation, basically giving him new, clean arteries to work with. To say the least he was angry. His rather pointed question to me was, “ I did everything I was told to do, I ate all the foods I should and avoided all the other ones. Why did this happen again…?” My very weak answer to him was “well everyone is different and there is probably another reason this has happened.” Turns out, so many years later I was probably closer to the truth then I would have believed at the time.

More recently in City Weekend magazine there was a spread on the results of the World Health Store 12 week Challenge, including interviews with many of the successful participants. I was struck by their comments on the different diet approaches they used and how each saw results from their individual diet changes to varying degrees. One participant summed his diet up by saying “It may not work for everyone but it worked for me”. Really he was saying “everyone is different” and now science is confirming that we are, at a very basic level, different and our response to what we eat is very personal. Maybe the reason your buddy can lose weight on a low carbohydrate diet and you have had no luck is because your body treats protein and carb in a whole different way. Diet advice will no longer depend solely on the presenting problem but now more than ever  the plan will be tailored to the individual. Truly ” treating the person and not the disease”.

If you haven’t heard of the newest field of study to come out of the human genome project, you will soon. Nutrigenomics, the study of the relationship between genes, nutrition and our health. This field of research gets rather complicated but in simple terms, scientists are looking at how our individual genetic make-up has an effect on our response to nutrients (food) and in turn impact our risk of developing chronic disease and obesity. Looking back, perhaps my patient from years ago had a gene mutation that affected his ability to process triglycerides resulting in his cardiac problems and we just didn’t have the science to see it. How different would have been my nutrition advice had we known.

While much the focus is on the influence of genes and disease, you can bet that sports nutrition professionals are also very interested in how DNA and nutrition can effect performance. Elite athletes are already using results from simple tests to manipulate their intake to enhance their performance on a much more specified level.

Although much more research needs to be done, this science is already moving beyond theory and animal studies and into your doctor and dietitian’s office. There are now simple test kits that screen for seven genes that, depending on the result, can indicate a risk or no risk for certain chronic diseases. Don’t be surprised if the next time the doctor tells you to open wide and say ”aah” he quickly pokes your cheek with a large Q-tip. One cheek swab can indicate if you are sensitive to sodium, affecting your risk of developing hypertension or identify your response to vitamin C and folate, which impacts your risk of developing heart disease. This kind of screening tool is ushering in a very personalized approach to nutrition. You may have a predisposition to heart disease but with this specific information you and your nutritionist can devise a personal plan to alter your environment to reduce your risk. Changing your food choices or adding specific supplements could make up for genetic deficiencies.  On the flip side, what if you are looking to improve your muscle mass or your speed on the track, your DNA map will probably be able to give you the recipe for that as well.   Welcome to the future of nutrition.

Although we are all different, I do believe some general nutrition advice still holds true for us all. Eat real food, lots of fruits and veggies, monitor your portion sizes and enjoy every bite!

Eat Well, Live Well, Have Fun…it is in your genes !