24 Sep Personalized nutrition’s potential to improve your health
September 24, 2018
You may have heard of personalized medicine, but what about personalized nutrition? Personalized nutrition is a concept that has been around for over a decade. It is simple to imagine and complex to implement. Imagine knowing the optimal ratio of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and phytonutrients (compounds found in plants) for your body. Imagine knowing how your body would process those nutrients. Would it convert them to fat or give you an energy boost? Would it stabilize your blood sugar or send you into a bout of brain fog? That would be terrific, wouldn’t it?
We’ll have to wait for more research to be done before we know those answers at an individual level. Right now, information from clinical studies is gathered from populations, which gives us an understanding of how the general population responds. That information is helpful, but can’t be used to accurately predict how an individual will respond. We are all different.
One of the tools researchers have to understand our individual differences is genome sequencing. Researchers have used genome sequencing to find genetic variations that are related to nutrition and digestive issues. For example, one of the first variations of this type was found in the PKU gene, which is needed for proper processing of an amino acid phenylalanine. People with a variation in the PKU gene cannot process phenylalanine and are put on a tailored low protein diet. Other variations found from genome sequencing are more complex and involved interaction of multiple biochemical pathways. Once the pathways involved are known, then researchers work to determine how they fit together. It’s like trying to untangle a ball of yarn when the ends are twisted up inside the ball.
When the ball of yarn is finally untangled, the knowledge is powerful! For example, a variation in the MTHFR gene reduces the enzymatic activity and affects the bioavailability of folate, an essential vitamin for pregnant women. If a woman and her doctor know that she has the variation in the MTHFR gene, they can work together to adjust her diet accordingly. This is relatively new research and will take time before it is incorporated into standard medical practice.
In the meantime, being in tune with your body will help you know how to adjust what you are eating to feel your best. You won’t know what is changing at a biochemical level, but you can use information from population based studies to inform what and how you eat based on your health and lifestyle. For example, endurance athletes have optimized how many and what type of carbohydrates to eat before, during, and after intense activity to help them perform their best and recover well. You can do the same if you listen to your body. It will tell you what it needs.
If you’re interested in the scientific details, check out the following scholarly journal articles.
van Ommen B, van den Broek T, de Hoogh I, van Erk M, van Someren E, Rouhani-Rankouhi T, Anthony JC, Hogenelst K, Pasman W, Boorsma A, Wopereis S. Systems biology of personalized nutrition. Nutr Rev. 2017 Aug 1;75(8):579-599.