Nutrition has long operated in the realm of generalities. More fruits and vegetables, less red meat and sugar. Carbohydrates can be good or bad and so can fat. But the guidelines the nutrition industry has traditionally provided has lacked an understanding of the microbial makeup of the individual.
The human gut microbiome is something that scientists have begun to gain greater understanding of in recent years. What they have learned, however, is that each person’s gut microbiome is quite different. One regularly cited study demonstrated that even identical twins have a different microbiome from one another and thus, react to food differently.
Considering these results, researchers believe that differences in each individual’s metabolism, microbiome, meal schedule and exercise regimen play an equally important role to the nutritional content of what we eat.
Researchers from the study used data points such as blood sugar levels, triglycerides, insulin resistance, levels of physical activity, and the health of an individual’s gut microbiome to develop a test and application fueled by machine learning algorithms to predict what foods the person will have a negative reaction to with up to 73% accuracy. As more people participate, the more accurate the algorithm becomes. They hope to release the app and test for public use in 2020.
New Research Fuels Innovation
This trend towards personalization is a direct result of nutrition research that provides a better understanding of how diet affects health. New technology such as wearables and remote patient monitoring platforms offer the possibility of continuous measurements of biomarkers to paint a clearer picture of individual health and fitness. On top of that, innovative data analytics models and tools can interpret the data and translate it into practical information a caregiver or the end user can put to good use.
This area of research is typically known as nutrigenetics or nutrigenomics, which one article from the British Medical Journal defines as a “discipline that studies the different phenotypic responses to diet depending on the genotype of each individual.” In other words, how our genes influence our reaction to environmental factors.
This research could be the key to a tremendous amount of innovation and make nutrition a more central part of patient treatment that is in line with shifts toward preventative care and personalization. It may also aide in developing treatments for chronic disease.
One of the areas there is hope for improvement is in the form of wellness coaching that can be paired with technology that users are already engaging with, such mobile phones. The coaching would help users make sense of their own health data and provide recommendations to help them meet health goals.
“It’s really about empowering them with data,” said Nathan Price of the Institute for Systems Biology and lead researcher for the 100k Wellness Project at a National Academies of Sciences workshop called Nutrigenomics and the Future of Nutrition. Price’s initiative is aimed at collecting genomic data from 100,000 people to substantially advance the ability to predict and prevent disease and focus on optimization of health. “How do you take the data and make it actionable for a person, in the moment?” he said.
Reason for Skepticism
An increasing number of companies have started to offer nutritional advice based on a genome and biomarker analysis as well as biochemical testing. But recommendations these services provide tend to be generic and because they don’t offer clinical advice, they’re not regulated except to confirm the accuracy of test methodologies.
In the end, the current lack of concrete evidence linking individual genetic variants to the complex chemical content of foods brings the validity of such services into question.
Commercial testing activity is suspended in the United Kingdom and highly criticized in the United States, with the U.S. Office of Inspector General posting a fraud alert on genetic testing scams just last month.
Critics warn that the hype around the field has significant consequences, with companies offering genome analysis to provide nutritional advice and personalized diets that are not informed by clinical data.
But even with that criticism, the science shows potential in improving patient outcomes and uncovering new health plans that can prevent chronic disease, not just treat it.