Publisher: Natural Medicine Magazine, Feb 2016
A new field of research that is in its infancy but is expanding at a rapid rate is the field of ‘nutrigenomics: the study of how our food intake has the power to determine how our genes are expressed. Our genes cannot change, but they can be activated or silenced, with dietary intake as the finger that presses the gene switches on or off.
The rush for Nutrigenomic testing
Many people are now opting for Nutrigenomic testing, where they receive a scientifically-backed report, providing dietary and lifestyle guidelines according to their genetic variations. The dietary guidelines are based on the anticipated response of their genes to dietary intake, so that their diet may potentially reduce risk of developing disease, promote a healthy weight and enhance overall health potential.
Nutrigenomics aim to explain why some people can eat pizza, pasta and bread to their heart’s desire and maintain a healthy weight, whereas the next person just looks at a slice of bread and immediately expands horizontally. Based on nutrigenomic research, this phenomenon is possibly driven by specific gene variations that increase an individual’s sensitivity to refined carbohydrates, predisposing them to gain weight rapidly if he or she eats a lot of them. The nutrigenomic report can be even more comprehensive than just weight loss tips; other genetic-based recommendations include the most appropriate exercise plan for you, an increased requirement for specific vitamins or minerals, foods to avoid due to an inherent intolerance (e.g.: lactose in dairy products) and foods to include that may be protective against predisposed chronic disease (e.g.: cruciferous vegetables).
It is crucial to understand that these tests do not diagnose disease, but merely reveal if you are at a higher risk of developing a certain disease, and providing suitable dietary guidelines to potentially reduce this risk. Although the focus of this article is based on dietary influence on genetic expression, it is important to note that diet is not the only influencing factor that switches genes on and off. Foetal exposures during pregnancy, toxins accumulating in your body tissues and many other factors are also involved in how our genes are expressed.
- Nutrigenomic profiling and dietary guidelines may be extremely useful in promoting health and vitality through personalised nutrition.
- Being aware of your genetic-driven health risks can be a strong motivator to comply with dietary recommendations in the report, allowing a much more proactive and preventative approach instead of waiting until disease may manifest.
- It enables you to understand your true health potential and provides the tools that empower you to reach it. It may provide more efficient and targeted guidelines for sustainable weight loss.
- Thousands of genetic and environmental factors interact with each other continuously and may override the limited number of gene-nutrient interactions available for testing at this current stage.
- Tests are made available to order over the internet. Without the help of a health professional, the client could be confused by how the results should be interpreted and applied.
- The tests are quite expensive, so only people with the financial means will be able to test their genetic profile.
- If an individual’s genetic information is widely available, it could lead to discrimination from their medical aid or employers.
- Eating with family and friends is a social experience, but the enjoyment of food may be lost if food is regarded solely as ‘medicine’.
Truly Personalised Nutrition
Personalised nutrition is much more than just the nutrient-gene interactions that have been identified so far. As a Nutritional Therapist, I cannot disregard the importance of other factors influencing an individual’s nutritional requirements. A genetic profile test won’t indicate digestive issues, chronic stress or hormonal dysregulation, just to name a few factors that increase risk of disease, over and above genetic predisposition.
For example, at CNH (College of Natural Health) we teach our students to consider and assess the client’s current health state from various angles, so that a personalised and targeted nutrition program can be developed for the client. Some factors to consider in the development of a nutrition program include:
- Health history
- Family health history
- Presenting signs and symptoms
- Current diet and lifestyle
- Past diet and lifestyle
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Socio-economic factors
Further functional assessments may be required to identify nutrient deficiencies or underlying imbalances that needs to be addressed through diet and supplementation.
A question of balance
Nutrigenomic-based recommendations can be motivating and empowering for the individual and a useful tool to inform health practitioners; however, it can never replace the value of having a health practitioner that takes not only your genetic individuality into account, but also all the other factors that are influencing your health at the present moment.