Each and every one of us has a personal preference for just about everything that we experience—including hobbies we enjoy, where we live, our favorite exercises, and so on. There’s no better example of how personal preferences impact our day-to-day life than what we choose to eat.
The majority of us have distinct likes and dislikes when it comes to food. We also have ideas about what is “best” for us. Most of the nutrition advice we have received since childhood is rooted in the principles of the USDA food pyramid, which is concerned with overall good nutrition for the general population or general health trends, which often do not have the same level of evidence as the USDA’s recommendations.
However, a growing body of research has shown that we all respond differently to what we put into our body and that “optimal nutrition” differs from person-to-person. By recognizing and creating more detailed, personal plans, we can potentially improve our health and extend our healthy life expectancy.
What Is Personalized Nutrition?
Have you ever decided to completely overhaul your diet, whether to lose weight, gain muscle mass, decrease your risk of a chronic health condition such as diabetes, or just because you felt your diet could be improved? Have you ever found that you do not seem to be making any progress towards your goal, cannot keep up with all of the prep work, or are not able to stick with a new dietary program due to the difficulty or side effects?
As good as a person’s intentions or will-power may be, the fact is, a large amount of the dietary advice that we receive is generic, such as “eat a diet low in saturated fats” or “stop eating after 7 pm each night,” and doesn’t go beyond a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Couple with the fact that we each respond to food differently or have a life which includes school, work, travel, etc., and these different approaches may not be realistic or easy to implement. Conversely, a personalized nutrition approach creates tailored nutrition advice and support using a multitude of information that is specific to each individual.
Personalized nutrition is the understanding that each of us has a unique set of needs, goals, and behaviors and that in order for individuals to reach their highest potential of health, diets should be customized accordingly. Personalized nutrition goes further than just sustenance or preventing nutrient deficiencies. It builds a plan that incorporates numerous factors, including: a person’s distinct genetics, biochemistry, metabolism, microbiome, and dietary-related behaviors. Additionally, personalized nutrition takes into account factors that are external to a person, such as their environment or occupation to create a program that is customized to meet the total needs of a person and can be incorporated into their current lifestyle successfully.
The term “personalized nutrition” has often been used interchangeably with terms such as “science-based nutrition”, “precision nutrition”, nutritional genomics”, or customized nutrition, however, these terms only show certain aspects of the concept, which is much more holistic in nature and takes into account the total context of a person. While there is no single definition of personalized nutrition, multiple experts have made attempts to provide clarity. Di Renzo et al., has described personalized nutrition as “the customization of nutritional interventions and human nutrition and food production optimization based on a person’s gene-environment state that includes an individual’s physiological, genetic, ethnic, cultural and economic background”.
Likewise, Ordovás et al. states that personalized nutrition is an “approach that uses information on individual characteristics to develop targeted nutritional advice, products, or services”. While these definitions vary somewhat, the overall goal of personalized nutrition is to achieve peak health for each person using tailored diets that are rooted in scientific evidence.
What Are the Benefits of Personalized Diets?
Over the past decade the concept of personalized nutrition has accumulated a growing body of knowledge and appreciation from the scientific and medical communities. While there is no doubt that science-based nutrition practices could benefit all individuals and their overall health, it may be particularly impactful for individuals with chronic disease, gut issues, specific food or lifestyle preferences, or those who have continuously struggled with weight.
One of the major benefits of a customized approach to nutrition is the ability to more accurately pinpoint where major gaps in nutrition are or dietary-related behaviors that a person may or may not be aware of. Additionally, this approach may more effectively identify triggers, both internal and external, in order to find ways to create a diet plan that essentially, “cuts through the noise” and allows a person to start seeing improvements while hopefully minimizing the frustration that comes with not knowing where to begin, trial and error, or no perceived health benefits.
While the practice of personalized nutrition is still not completely developed, it has made great progress, especially in the last few years. Tools that allow us to understand a person’s demographics, biological makeup, dietary intake, physical activity, and other lifestyle factors are widely available and mostly cost-effective. Additionally, most people have access to smartphones and various health apps, as well as tracking tools and social communities. These key elements make creating, implementing, and monitoring a tailored nutrition plan much more doable day-to-day. However, due to the higher costs of other resources such as microbiome testing, epigenetics, regular laboratory work, proteomics, and metabolomics, in addition to other less available tools, fully utilizing a personalized nutrition approach may still not be attainable for some individuals.
Luckily, many experts, from research to health and wellness or the food industry, have recognized this as an issue and have started to make great efforts in closing this gap. Fortunately, one of the very foundational components of personalized nutrition, understanding a person’s unique genetic makeup and their nutrition and health predispositions, has become increasingly more cost-effective and accessible to most individuals. Add this information to the ability to seek out credible health information and track progress and the reality of personalized nutrition does not seem as far away as we might think.
Do Our Genes Determine Our Response to Our Nutrition?
While understanding each person’s unique genetic code is an important part of the overall nutrition puzzle, it is not the only factor that we must consider. However, our genes are the “blueprint” and just like in architecture, making sure that you understand the foundation is essential to creating a strong framework for reaching your goals.
While genes may not be able to tell us everything, they do influence health domains such as metabolic rate, how our body processes food, nutrition needs, sensitivities, taste preferences, and even some eating behaviors. Additionally, our genes can indicate how we respond to exercise, how our body regulates weight, and potential health concerns. By knowing this information, we can better understand our metabolism and dietary needs or traits. Furthermore, we can use this essential layer of knowledge to enhance our diets to create an optimal nutrition intake as well as improve or enhance our physical activity and lifestyle choices to achieve peak overall health.
While some individuals may be disappointed in knowing our genotype alone may not be the “silver bullet” or the single factor steering us towards which diet we should follow, the other way to look at this is that no matter what set of genes we have inherited, they do not have to be our destiny. We can make smart choices that work with our genes instead of against them in order to attain better health.
How Do I Create a Custom Nutrition Plan?
Now that we know the definition of personalized nutrition and how it may be beneficial, let’s discuss how to put it into practice.
Create Your Foundation
Your personalized nutrition plan can be as comprehensive or as simple as you would like. However, the more factors that are taken into account, the more success you may find. A great place to start when creating a custom nutrition plan is to determine how much energy your body needs. This can be done using a simple estimated energy requirement calculator, such as this one from the Mayo Clinic.
Next, you’ll want to consider any health conditions. For example, a Celiac disease diagnosis will mean cutting out all forms of gluten and having rheumatoid arthritis may warrant an anti-inflammatory approach. Checking in with your health care provider can be helpful during that step.
Determining your genetic nutritional needs and predispositions can be a helpful tool when it comes to taking your nutrition plan to the next level, as our genetics can give us clues to what areas in our diet we can to focus on for optimal health. Additional testing such as bloodwork (cholesterol, glucose, and vitamin levels), blood pressure, body composition, and even testing your gut microbiome are other factors to consider.
Consider Dietary Behaviors
Next, take into account dietary behaviors and dietary preferences. This may include what foods you enjoy, what foods you dislike, a realistic amount of time you are able to dedicate to meal planning or prep, your food budget, your family needs, your schedule, and more. For example, committing to an intermittent fasting schedule where you stop eating at 5 pm may not be realistic if you are an active night owl. The more you can make your plan work for you, the more successful you are going to be.
Put It Into Action
Once you have taken assessment of your foundation and dietary behaviors, put it into action! Know that your diet does not have to be rigid and can change based on how you feel, your activity, and your routine. Think of it as an experiment where you can take notes, track your intake and symptoms, and see what works for you. If you ever feel stuck or you need to reevaluate, meeting with a nutrition professional may help provide additional guidance.
What Are Some General Nutrition Practices I Should Follow?
Regardless of what nutritional path you decide, there are overlapping recommendations that many successful diets entail. One of these is focusing on whole foods. Whole foods tend to be rich in nutrients and low in unnecessary additives, which is important for disease prevention and health promotion. Avoiding processed foods is also another way to ensure you are maximizing your nutrition, as well as staying properly hydrated. Lastly, listening to hunger cues and being mindful of portion sizes can be very helpful habits to build into your daily practice.
Thank you for exploring this journey of personalized nutrition with us. While it may be overwhelming, small tweaks to your diet and lifestyle can reap big rewards in the long run. If you would like to learn more about how genetic testing can influence your personalized nutrition plan, check out this post here “Can a DNA Test Really Tell You How to Eat?”.
1. Loo, R. L., Zou, X., Appel, L. J., Nicholson, J. K., & Holmes, E. (2018). Characterization of metabolic responses to healthy diets and association with blood pressure: application to the Optimal Macronutrient Intake Trial for Heart Health (OmniHeart), a randomized controlled study. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 107(3), 323-334.
2. Ramos-Lopez, O., Milagro, F. I., Allayee, H., Chmurzynska, A., Choi, M. S., Curi, R., ... & Kohlmeier, M. (2017). Guide for current nutrigenetic, nutrigenomic, and nutriepigenetic approaches for precision nutrition involving the prevention and management of chronic diseases associated with obesity. Lifestyle Genomics, 10(1-2), 43-62.
3. Di Renzo, L., et. al. (2019). Role of Personalized Nutrition in Chronic-Degenerative Diseases. Nutrients, 11(8), 1707. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081707
4. Ordovas, J. M., Ferguson, L. R., Tai, E. S., & Mathers, J. C. (2018). Personalised nutrition and health. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 361, bmj.k2173. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k2173
5. Katz, D. L., & Meller, S. (2014). Can we say what diet is best for health?. Annual review of public health, 35, 83-103.
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