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The “DNA” Diet Plan

Shira Isenberg, RD, MPH

What’s the best diet for weight loss? What’s the ideal eating plan for lowering cholesterol levels? The answer, say researchers, depends on your unique genetic makeup

Thursday, October 27, 2016

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FAST FORWARD More than 300 different genes are known to affect body weight and fat storage. Are these the diets of the future?

Y ou team up with your husband to shed a few pounds. Day after day, you follow the same exercise regimen. At mealtimes, you dish out the exact same foods. Two weeks later, you both weigh in. He drops a whopping ten pounds — and you gain a pound and a half.

Or maybe it’s you and your sister who decide to cut out cheese and red meat to bring down your mutually high cholesterol, but only your levels fall — Sis’s refuse to budge.

This same scenario plays itself out all the time, albeit with different players and a zillion different possible combinations. The variety in responses to the same diet frustrates not just dieters who want to lose weight, but anyone trying to use food to improve symptoms — to clear up skin or reduce stomach distress or alleviate a health condition, like diabetes. “You must be cheating!” or “Well, men have more muscle mass” are often the exasperating explanations offered.

Confusion about what really works is compounded when you look at nutrition research. Take, for example, a bunch of reliable, well-planned studies that show one thing; yet another stack of equally reliable, equally well-planned studies show the exact opposite. How is that possible? These are the issues and challenges facing the field of nutrigenomics, the study of how nutrition relates to the differences between people’s genetic makeup. More and more, nutrition experts are starting to realize that there is no such thing as “one diet that fits all.” People respond differently to different foods, and what works for one person will not necessarily work for someone else, underscoring the need for more individualized diet plans — whether you’re trying to drop ten pounds or get your blood sugar under control.

We’re entering an era when people may first undergo genetic profiling or stool sampling before getting diet recommendations. Here’s a closer look at two futuristic ways to personalize your eating plan.

Using DNA for Dieting

For a long time, researchers have been trying to determine coffee’s relationship with the heart — does it promote heart disease or keep your heart healthier? Just look at this frustrating line from a 2007 review: “Coffee is a complex mixture of compounds that may have either beneficial or harmful effects on the cardiovascular system.” Arghh! Which is it?

Enter genetics. Since scientists cracked the human genetic code with the Human Genome Project some ten years ago, they’ve continued to discover little chunks of DNA sequencing that make us different from each other. These single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, may code for anything from freckles and sun-sensitive skin to how well your body processes a specific nutrient. This last one becomes crucial for making sense of the confusing cardiovascular research on coffee.

The SNP in question is one that impacts how quickly the body metabolizes caffeine. In general, coffee does offer cardiovascular protective effects due to its antioxidants. But it also has a lot of caffeine, and certain people are “slow metabolizers” — that is, their bodies break down caffeine more slowly, so it lingers longer in their blood, where it can interfere with cardiac functioning. For “fast metabolizers,” in contrast, caffeine has less of an impact because it clears their bodies more quickly.


That first group, the slow metabolizers, are the ones for whom coffee may be a bigger health detriment; fast metabolizers can drink coffee more liberally, because they’re getting more out of its beneficial compounds and less of the negative effect of caffeine.

Genetic variability helps explain some of the discrepancies among good scientific nutrition research (besides the usual problem of getting people to remember exactly what they ate or follow a precise diet to the letter). When researching large groups, scientists tend to lump everyone together and assume their genes react the same way. But this covers up the individual variability among different people.

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