Ask any health expert and they will tell you that having excess body fat can be detrimental to your overall well-being. Over two-thirds of the U.S. population is categorized as overweight or obese, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25.0 or higher.
A high BMI can indicate a high body fat percentage, which is associated with multiple chronic diseases, including type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some cancers, and is shown to have a negative impact on mental health.
However, some argue that BMI is not the best indicator of a person’s health. They contend that BMI calculation is too simplistic and categorizes individuals into incorrect health groups because it only compares weight to height. For example, a professional footballer or bodybuilder with a high BMI will likely be categorized as overweight or obese as they tend to weigh more due to an abundance of muscle.
Additionally, bodyweight as an indicator of health may not tell all that you need to know. When a person begins an exercise plan to lose weight, they may become discouraged if they do not see the numbers on the scale decreasing. Often though, this person is improving their body composition, and overall health, even though they have not yet seen a shift in the scale.
Body composition refers to everything your body is made of, including fat, muscle, minerals, and body water. It describes weight more accurately than BMI as it precisely shows two crucial measurements—fat mass and fat-free mass.
Body composition analysis is a personalized evaluation that can measure key components of your body, giving you a better understanding of your overall health while allowing you to create an individualized health plan.
What is Personalized Lifestyle Medicine?
Personalized lifestyle medicine is a new model of medicine that considers an individualized approach to making health recommendations. It includes research that indicates our body works as an integrated system, not as individual parts, and combines new technology approaches in medicine, including recent discoveries in gene expression and life and behavioral sciences, among others.
Personalized lifestyle medicine has become a topic of interest and research continues to be performed on the subject of nutrigenomics. Nutrigenomics is broadly defined as the relationship between nutrients and gene expression. Much like identifying individual body composition, nutrigenomics testing can help individuals understand the influence of dietary components on their genes, which may help prevent the development of certain chronic diseases.
What is Nutrigenomics?
Nutrigenomics is the science of analyzing and understanding gene–nutrient interactions. Essentially, nutrigenomics can tell you how well your body absorbs specific nutrients from certain foods and provide a basic understanding of how your genetic makeup affects the onset of obesity and other related chronic conditions.
When did Nutrigenomics start?
Nutrigenomics was conceived shortly after the launch of the Human Genome Project in the 1990s. The Human Genome Project is the largest, global human research study in history. Its results mapped out a genetic blueprint and provided scientists, researchers, and doctors with opportunities to link certain DNA sequences to inherited traits, including those predisposed to genetic diseases.
Identifying certain DNA sequence variants that contribute to nutrition-related disease risk is essential for developing a better understanding of the complex causes of disease in humans. Within each of us, there are small genetic variations called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs).
Changes in our genome affect human evolution, and understanding the evolving phenotypic variations in our species allows us to adapt to this ever-changing environment. An ongoing body of work remains in the study of the human genome. To bring the research together on a global scale, the Human Variome Project was formed in 2006 as an umbrella organization ensuring the effective and lawful practice of generating, testing, and sharing genetic information and data.
How can personalized nutrition help with body composition?
It is important to note that exploration surrounding nutrigenomics and personalized, or precision nutrition, is constantly being researched and reexamined. Because our bodies are so complex and dynamic, there is no “perfect fit” when it comes to diet, exercise, or the combination thereof.
Fad diets, while popular, can be argued against with the use of personalized nutrition. Fad diets generally recommend that everyone adhere to the same eating guidelines, indicating all will reach a common end goal (i.e. fat loss). Often these diets work because they focus on the main principle of a simple reduction in caloric intake, especially the intake of processed and fast foods. The problem here is that some of these fad diets may be restricting some key nutrients that could end up affecting their health negatively.
The more information that we have about our body and how it works can be a great resource in improving our body composition, and overall health, throughout our lifetime. Personalized nutrition is an innovative and promising approach to the prevention and treatment of obesity and related conditions. This approach identifies the genetic markers, dietary patterns, environment, and metabolism of an individual and makes recommendations based on these factors.
An example of adapting to a personalized nutrition plan to improve body composition lies in a 2012 study identifying genetic markers of a random group of individuals. Results from this study indicate that the obesity-associated gene (FTO) risk allele carriers showed a significantly increased improvement in body weight change, body composition, and fat distribution compared to carriers of the non-risk allele. Interestingly, this effect was only observed if risk allele carriers of the FTO SNP rs1558902 followed a high-protein diet.
Understanding your specific genetic makeup can be useful in improving body composition. If we look at the study in the previous paragraph, individuals that have the specific FTO risk allele may benefit from consuming a high-protein diet, while individuals in the non-risk allele category may not need to adjust their protein intake to improve body composition. Knowing this information helps eliminate much of the trial and error that comes with fluctuations in weight and overall body composition.
How can personalized nutrition help with athletic performance?
Personalized nutrition can benefit athletic performance. Certain genetic variants and gene-nutrient interactions affect the way we absorb, metabolize, utilize, and excrete nutrients. These variants can affect metabolic pathways relevant to both health and athletic performance.
The gene-diet interaction may not be directly associated with measurable performance outcomes, such as increased aerobic capacity, speed, or strength, but instead with certain biomarkers or phenotypes, such as body composition or circulating iron stores. These indicators are independent determinants of athletic performance, risk of injury, and post-exercise recovery.
For example, low iron stores impact hemoglobin production, which decreases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. This lack of oxygen can lead to impaired muscle contraction and decreased aerobic endurance.
Another example of the effects gene-nutrient interaction has on athletic performance is the common use of caffeine as a performance enhancer. There is a specific variation in our genes that is associated with how our bodies metabolize caffeine, including sensitivities to the stimulant.
Fast metabolizers of caffeine express the AA genotype, while slow metabolizers have the AC or CC expression. The AC or CC genotype is also shown to lead to an elevated risk of myocardial infarction, hypertension, and blood pressure.
The future of personalized nutrition
In this article, we have highlighted the benefits of nutrigenomics and creating a personalized nutrition plan to improve body composition and reduce the risk of developing chronic health conditions. While the study of nutrigenomics has been a topic of discussion for the better part of two decades, there is still a myriad of research to be done.
Researchers and public health advocates have begun identifying the principles of nutrigenomics to address the issue of malnutrition on a global scale. Certain underdeveloped communities around the world struggle with poor diets that result in either undernutrition or overnutrition, affecting the quality of life for people living in these communities.
For example, Anemia is a global public health concern that is thought to be mainly due to associated iron deficiency. However, recent estimates suggest that only about 50% of anemia is due to iron deficiency and that much of the population is unresponsive to iron therapy.
With gene-nutrient expression, researchers can also identify the genetic predisposition among some individuals to develop metabolic syndrome. Utilizing nutrigenomics to identify how certain individuals process specific nutrients can help address micronutrient imbalances to improve overall health outcomes.
There are certainly ethical considerations in nutrigenomics and capturing an individual’s DNA, as well as psychological factors that come into play when discussing nutrition-related personal information. Some of these considerations include the additional burden or stress of eating, removing the joy and/or social aspect of eating, and the potential discrimination against individuals who decide against following specific dietary recommendations.
However, it has been shown that the benefits outweigh these socio-ethical considerations. Providing individuals with more knowledge about their bodies and including a personalized road map is a better solution than sticking with a one-size-fits-all approach to health.
Why personalization is important for your overall health
According to National Institute of Health reports, two-thirds of the U.S. population is considered overweight or obese. Coupled with the alarming increase in preventable chronic diseases resulting from poor lifestyle choices, we are placing ourselves deeper into a public health crisis.
One-size-fits-all diets and exercise plans are not a sustainable approach. We need to embrace our individuality and use that knowledge to improve our overall health. Modern technology provides such an opportunity with affordable access to genomic testing, body composition analysis, blood pressure monitoring, and blood glucose monitoring.
All of these tests provide snapshots of how our bodies work and can provide instantaneous recommendations for improving our health on many levels. However, the most important thing to remember is that change takes time. Taking consistent, incremental steps to better your health and wellness is key in maintaining healthy habits.
Nicole Pepper is a health and wellness professional with a passion for improving the lives of those around her. She enjoys cooking, baking, running, and likes to balance her obsession with murder mystery shows with Disney movies.