Making Nutrition Personal
It seems like anywhere you go, you can find a personality test. These tests have jumped from the pages of magazines to websites created entirely for the purpose of learning more about ourselves. It doesn’t matter how superficial the test results are: we can’t seem to stop taking them. Whether it is human nature or just a quirk of the 21st century, we love discovering how the world relates to us.
Technological progress has allowed us to take this self-discovery to new levels. Convenience stores and pharmacies sell tests that tell you everything from your vitamin levels to what foods you may have a sensitivity to. DNA testing can be done at home, and there are even businesses that specialize in finding out the breed makeup of your dog or cat. At this point, it seems as if there are no limits to what we can learn about ourselves. The question becomes: what do we do with this knowledge?
This is where personalized nutrition comes in. Rather than abiding by general dietary guidelines created for the entire population, consumers are turning to diets that suit their individual needs. In personalized nutrition, a person’s likes, dislikes, health status, health goals, diseases, and fitness level can be used to determine a diet plan that works best for them or suggest nutritional supplements based on their individual dietary needs. Food, beverage, and nutritional supplement companies have begun taking advantage of this movement, and Innova Market Insights named “Tailored to Fit” one of their top trends for 2021.
This desire for food and beverages that perfectly fit our lifestyle makes sense if you look at the vast number of choices available to us. Take peanut butter, for example. What was once a choice between smooth and crunchy has expanded to include different flavors, sizes, delivery forms, and nutritional specifications. You can choose the brand and texture you prefer and even purchase a combination peanut butter and jelly product. FMI reports that in 2019, the average supermarket carried over 28,000 items. In contrast, Consumer Reports notes that this number was less than 9,000 in 1975. With so many options, consumers have more chances than ever to find a product perfectly suited to their lifestyle, and they are taking advantage of it.
These choices have expanded beyond grocery store shelves. The proliferation of “build-your-own” restaurants allow diners to create their own combinations of items like ice cream, pizzas, salads, pasta dishes, and sandwiches. It has extended to traditional restaurants as well, with more and more of them adding options for customers with specific dietary restrictions. Meal delivery services also offer ways to customize. Customers can choose ready-made meals or ingredient kits, meals that fit specific dietary requirements, or kits that include organic ingredients. Many of these services also allow you to pick what meals you would like for the week and consistently add new recipe options.
As demand for options tailored specifically to the individual has grown, other companies have sprung up that create customized diet plans. The plans are based on your answers to questions about your current diet, dietary preferences, and fitness level and do not require a trip to a dietitian or nutritionist. There are even businesses that will take your results from a DNA test and—you guessed it—create a meal plan tailored to you. Even more impressive is that this personalized nutrition movement extends beyond what we eat and drink. You can purchase individual haircare or skincare plans, take a test to find out what exercise regimen is best for your body type, or use data from a wearable device to learn about your sleep habits. You can even get a customized vitamin plan based on your health concerns or a probiotic plan developed for your specific gut microbiome.
Research into the field of personalized nutrition has been promising. Rachael Jinnette et al. did a systematic review of eleven studies involving personalized nutrition to examine its effect on a person’s diet. The authors, who published their findings in December 2020 in the journal Advances in Nutrition, noted that personalized nutrition plans were more effective in improving people’s diets compared to generalized dietary advice. However, they also found little evidence that personalized nutrition plans effectively improved a person’s diet when they were based solely on genetic factors. The authors cite two studies in particular showing this: “Hollands et al. concluded that communicating genetic-based risk had little or no impact in reducing health risk behaviors, while Li et al. found no evidence that communication of genetic-based risk improved dietary or exercise behaviors of participants.”
Dariush Mozaffarian, cardiologist and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, echoed this idea in an interview with NPR’s Allison Aubrey. He noted that a person’s genes only account for five to ten percent of a person’s risk of diet-related diseases and went on to say, “For basic healthy living, it’s not about your genes, it’s about your behavior.” This does not mean that either your genes or family history are irrelevant to your health but rather that you have more control than you might think. You can decrease your risk of certain diseases by living a healthy lifestyle and taking care of yourself.
Because the field of personalized nutrition is still growing rapidly, there is still a lot of research that needs to be done. In the meantime, it is recommended that you talk to a licensed health professional if you are interested in finding a personalized nutrition plan that works for you. These professionals can recommend the most accurate tests for learning about your health and subsequently help you interpret your results. By seeking a specialist to guide you in your health journey, you’ve already taken the first step in personalized nutrition: putting yourself first.
Alison DeGuide is a content developer at IFANCA as well as the editor of Halal Consumer Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in public diplomacy from the University of Southern California, where she also did her undergraduate studies.