image by: Engin Akyurt
With DNA analysis making its way into the commercial realm, it was inevitable that the health industry would get in on the action. But how good is that for the consumer?
In the 1980s, the dairy industry poured tons of cash into a nationwide ad campaign with the slogan: Milk—it does a body good. Judging by me, they were right. Milk was a staple of my diet as a healthy kid, and today middle-aged me regularly drinks about a gallon of skim milk per week and is in fine fettle, with no gastrointestinal issues of any sort.
But that’s me. For some, milk consumption can be an impediment to ideal health, while others may suffer from full-blown lactose intolerance. Not all bodies are created equally. While water and exercise may benefit everyone and saturated fats and processed sugar never did anyone any good, the effect of most everything else, from nuts and roughage to chicken and rice, depends largely on your genes.
That is the biological reality behind the creation of Habit, a company that creates personalized nutrition plans based on a DNA and metabolism test. Send Habit $299, three blood samples, and DNA swab, and Habit tells you how your body responds to food(s) and creates a biology report and an eating plan that users can access both online and in an app.
The need for three blood tests is so that Habit can have data on how your body responds to various foods (not totally dissimilar to the way allergists learn about your allergies by exposing you to potential allergens). After fasting for 10 hours, applicants draw thee first blood sample, then consume a 950-calorie drink (included in the test kit) high in sugar, carbohydrates, and saturated fat. A half-hour later the second sample is drawn, with the third being taken another 90 minutes later.
After a few weeks, users receive information on what their biomarkers and genetic variants indicate about the optimum way to fulfill their dietary needs. Habit’s also sends users an eating plan tailored to fulfill those needs, and users get a session with a registered dietician.
Habit is far from the only company to offer personal recommendations based on genetic analysis. For example, from a saliva sample FitnessGenes analyzes a long list of genes that have been found to affect the body’s ability to build muscle, burn fat, perform various other functions (e.g., ACE for endurance, IL6 for inflammation and recovery, AGT for blood pressure regulation). Based on that and a list of your lifestyle factors and fitness goals, FitnessGenes sends you personalized workout advice and a genetically tailored diet plan.
While the logic behind such services may be basically sound, placing your health habits in the hands of such companies is far from a guarantee that you’ll come out the other side of the bargain with a better you. “Recommendations regarding diet provided to you may or may not be beneficial to you and may cause or exacerbate certain medical problems,” says Habit. "There’s no scientific proof that [services like] this can be a prediction,” Andrew Steele, head of product for DNAFit, another such company, told Business Insider. “It’s just learning more about you so you can better reach your goal."
But in some cases that learning may have negative consequences in and of itself. “There is a possibility that due to the heritable nature of genetic information, sensitive information may be revealed by your Results that could have implications in terms of inferring paternity/ maternity (e.g. where multiple family Results are known, your Results would suggest you are not genetically related to your father or mother) or other features of your personal genealogy,” says FitnessGenes. “In addition, your Results may reveal you have a higher than average chance of developing a particular condition or disease (e.g. Type 2 diabetes). Such information is likely to be distressing, evoke strong emotions and is obviously irrevocable.”
Moreover, for all of the scientific advances in our understanding of genetics made during the last few decades, this is an ever-developing field. “The research community is continually learning more about genetics and publishing updates to existing knowledge in scientific journals,” notes FitnessGenes. “Our interpretation of your genetic data is reliant on these published studies, and as a result, future scientific research may change the interpretation of your DNA. In the future, the scientific community may show previous research to be incomplete or inaccurate.”
You know the old saying: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It may be the case that the personalized diet and exercise regimens available through these relatively new commercial services qualify as more than a little knowledge, but as with any service, the buyer should be wary. Your body is not like everyone else’s, and maintaining it based on its specific needs is sound advice. But users of such services would be wise to regard their results and recommendations as additional data to use toward that end, rather than as a definitive map to finding the healthiest possible you.
About the Author:
Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California. Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.
His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals. HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up. For more information: greggorymoore.com
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