Do You Really Need Individualized Food Advice? What Experts Say About The Personalized Nutrition Trend

Fortune Well February 27, 2024


Do You Really Need Individualized Food Advice? What Experts Say About The Personalized Nutrition Trend

Nutrition guidance can be frustratingly general: Eat more greens. Prioritize protein. Skip the processed foods. Precision, or personalized, nutrition has emerged as a tailored-to-you approach to deciding what belongs on your plate.

“Personalized nutrition is tailored to an individual’s unique genetic makeup, lifestyle, and health goals, standing in contrast to general dietary advice, which applies broad, population-level recommendations,” says dietitian Lauren Manaker, RDN. Taking a more bespoke approach to your nutritional needs may help you hone your energy levels, stick with your nutrition goals, and improve your health in the short and long run. 

Interested? Below, Manaker and dietitian Wan Na Chun, RD, Owner of One Pot Wellness, explain how precision nutrition works, its potential benefits, and what this area of nutrition hasn’t quite figured out (yet). 

How precision nutrition, or personalized nutrition, works

“Personalized nutrition uses genetic testing, lifestyle factors, health status, and goals to help provide specific dietary recommendations,” Chun says. This one-size-fits-one approach is common for dietitians. Now, technology—and specifically artificial intelligence (AI)—is making it easier to collect and parse the data necessary for precision nutrition. 

A new class of wearables and at-home tests collect genetic information as well as health metrics such as blood sugar and blood fat. Some at-home tests, like ZOE, even collect fecal matter that can be tested to learn more about your gut health. “Wearable devices can also provide insights into factors including activity level, sleep habits, and stress levels that can also be used to provide realistic and sustainable nutrition advice,” says Chun. 

Put together, all these metrics tell a story about your health and how your current nutritional approach is serving you. Dietitians and other health professionals can then take your personal data to come up with smart health solutions that may lead to better long-term health. Someone who is lactose-intolerant will need to avoid different foods than someone with celiac disease, for example. 

Your genetic makeup may also determine how your body metabolizes coffee, how it reacts to carbs and fats, and even which foods you prefer.  

The benefits of personalized nutrition

Think about your physical fitness: Maybe once, you were following a general fitness plan that included walking, calisthenics, and some light stretching. Seeking a more personalized approach, you meet with a trainer who tests your VO2 max and muscular strength. After that, they identify your strengths and weaknesses and recommend specific exercises to increase your endurance and strength. Suddenly, you have a plan meant for you and you only. 

The same logic applies to precision nutrition. “Personalized nutrition can help address a wide variety of health issues, chronic conditions, and health goals among groups of people across various life stages and health conditions,” says Chun. 

Putting aside all the tests, precision nutrition also offers the opportunity for the individual to customize their food plan to suit their life, circumstances, and culture. “This holistic approach respects diverse dietary traditions and personal tastes, ensuring that the recommended dietary plans are not just scientifically sound but also culturally sensitive and practically feasible for the individual,” says Manaker. “It relies on the premise that for any nutritional advice to be effective, it must be tailored to align with the individual’s unique lifestyle, including their culinary heritage and palate preferences.”

In the long term, following a personal nutrition plan may help with disease prevention and increase your healthspan. 

The limits of personalized nutrition

While at-home testing, wearables, and AI have made precision nutrition slightly more accessible, its price point remains exclusionary to most people. This approach may cost hundreds of dollars per test and still more for the actually nutritional plan. “Personalized nutrition plans and services like genetic testing, microbiome analyses, and individualized meal plans can be expensive and are rarely covered by insurance,” says Chun. 

Plus, she adds, the science around nutrigenomics—or how our genetics affect the nutrients we consume and vice versa—is still in its nascent stages. “Not all claims are well-supported yet, and there is still a need for larger, higher quality studies over time,” Chun warns. Anyone who’s interested in this approach to nutrition should be wary of promises that seem too good to be true.

Last but certainly not least, obsessing about every last detail of your diet can quickly get out of hand. “Overly customized diets, especially with many excluded foods, can become very difficult for individuals to adhere to long-term. This can lead to non-compliance or increased restrictions around food,” says Chun.

If you’re going to partake in personalized nutrition, make sure to continuously check in on your mental health and talk to a dietitian if your plan starts to feel too rigid. “Remember that data and scientific information doesn’t have emotion attached to it,” says Manaker. “It is important to work with the right provider to help you navigate your personalized nutrition plan in a healthy way.”

A final note: Remember that general diet information exists for a reason. Nutritional public health initiatives often have a kernel of truth that applies to everyone. “Generalized dietary guidelines can provide a foundation for public health strategies that encourage overall health improvements, such as promoting the consumption of fruits and vegetables and reducing the intake of ultra-processed foods,” explains Manaker. 

The bottom line on precision nutrition

Those who can afford precision nutrition may discover that they have a more robust, clear view of how their bodies work and what fuel they require. This knowledge could help with the management of chronic disease and disease prevention. However, it’s important to work with a licensed professional to interpret your genetic, blood, and fecal tests correctly. 

“My advice would be to take it step-by-step and not feel the need to obsess over every metric,” says Chun. “Making one or two key nutrition changes is more important for health than perfecting every number and tracker.” 

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