The most startling about trying a new diet plan is just how much trial and error finding the right one can take. At a time when it seems everything can be tailored to our specific interests and needs, from what’s offered on television to what books we might enjoy reading, diet plans still seem decidedly impersonal. Can’t there be a personalized diet tailored specifically to our individual needs?
Sure, there’s general advice: Eat a low-carb diet, go gluten-free, step up the protein intake, or eat more fruits and vegetables. But if you’ve ever tried changing your eating habits, it’s clear how tough that rote advice can be to follow.
It isn’t just issues of willpower or not hitting the gym enough. For some people, eating sweets doesn’t seem to impact their weight. In others, it seems that just looking at a slice of cake can add five pounds to their frames. Now, scientists are realizing that genetics might play more of a role in how our bodies respond to food than we ever thought possible. Enter the personalized diet plan. (1)
What Is a Personalized Diet?
As scientists began researching why there’s so much variety in how bodies respond to diets, even when people are following the same plan, something that seems startlingly obvious became clear: Our bodies our all different.
What seems like a “duh” moment actually goes a little deeper. Our bodies all absorb and metabolize nutrients in different ways, and there are quite a few factors involved: genetic makeup, body type, the bacteria in the gut, and even environmental factors like chemical exposure or stress.
When scientists can tease out evidence that certain foods make a person’s blood sugar spike, for instance, or if a certain type of food wreaks havoc on gut bacteria and leaves a person feeling bloated, they’re able to give better, more individual nutrition advice.
In theory, this type of personalized diet not only gives people a better idea of what types of foods they should eat and avoid to lose weight, but it helps with “teaching” people how to eat in the long term. After all, once weight loss isn’t a factor, you still want to eat foods that make you feel good and avoid those that have been proven to irritate your body, right?
So far, the proof seems to be in the pudding. In one study, published published by Cell, researchers fed 800 people the same foods and found a huge variation among participants in glucose responses. Foods like ice cream and whole-grain bread, for example, caused blood sugar to spike in some individuals while having little to no glucose response in others, lending credence to the idea that grains are not right for everyone. (2)
While the initial findings were impressive, the research team then went to the next level. Using information they’d unearthed on the patients based on glucose responses and combining the data with family histories, activity levels, medications and gut bacteria, the researchers were able to predict — correctly, as it turned out — how participants would respond to foods they hadn’t eaten yet. They were also able to “prescribe” a personalized diet plan to 100 participants that moderated post-meal blood sugar levels and increased good gut bacteria.
Why use blood glucose levels to test the personalized diet theory? Because they’re rapidly increasing in the U.S. population, leading to a sharp increase in prediabetes and impaired glucose tolerance — which, according to the study authors, is estimated to affect about 37 percent of the adult population.
Additionally, high glucose levels are associated with conditions like prediabetes, obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and cardiovascular diseases. In short, it’s a good indication of whether someone’s healthy or not.
Why Personalized Diets Aren’t Ready to Go Mainstream
If you’re ready to sign up for your own personalized diet assessment, it will be difficult. There are only a handful of companies so far that offer personalized diet plans, ranging from visiting an “authorized clinic” in person to mailing in a saliva sample, with prices starting in the $400 range.
Additionally, because the companies offer mainly nutritional advice and not a plan to treat specific diseases or conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome or skin conditions, they’re not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration against any claims — which might not even matter because many of the companies are based in foreign countries.
So while in the future, ultra-personalized diet plans might be available through a reputable doctor, right now it’s still a long way until they’re available at an affordable price to the average consumer at a quality that’s worth paying for.
There are, however, other ways you can take control and personalize your own diet. While these new diets make good use of your personal details to create a specific diet for you, it’s a quicker version of something you can do at home cheaply that will help you listen to your body and learn what it needs. Say hello to the elimination diet.
Why an Elimination Diet is a Great Alternative
I’m a huge fan of elimination diets. The idea behind them is that there are certain foods that caus allergic, digestive or other unfavorable health-related responses. By figuring out what foods cause the symptoms, you can take control of your diet and kick them out of your life for good.
An elimination diet really does prove that food is medicine and lets you heal from the inside out, naturally. Though it might sound complicated, because eight foods — including eggs, wheat/gluten and milk — are responsible for about 90 percent of food allergies, it’s not an overwhelming task.
It works by eliminating these allergy trigger foods from your diet for about a month, including all trace amounts of the ingredients in sauces and condiments. While the first few days are rough as your body eliminates the last bits of these foods, you’ll slowly find a “new normal.” Keeping a food journal during this time is really helpful to record what you’re eating and how you’re feeling.
After avoiding the naughty list of foods for a month, you’ll slowly introduce each food, one at a time, back into your diet.
By eating the food at least once a day if possible but not introducing any other new ones, you can really pinpoint any physical changes that occur when you consume that food. It might be that soy doesn’t affect you at all or that it’s the cause of your acne. If a food seems to cause a poor response after its reintroduction, you can eliminate it again to see if it’s truly the cause.
You might be thinking that an elimination diet is unnecessary because you feel fine. However, I recommend doing an elimination diet at least once in your lifetime. As a society, we’ve been out of touch with the food we eat and our bodies’ responses to them for so long that you might not realize you’re suffering from a food allergy because you don’t know life without it.
If you’re not ready to embark on an elimination diet just yet, you can still begin revamping your diet. My healing foods diet focuses on removing harmful ingredients from your diet and enjoying those foods that are packed with healing benefits and proven to make you feel good. And don’t forget to get your fill of fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut and kombucha. The are also probiotic foods, which promote good bacteria in the gut so your body can better absorb nutrients.
Personalized diets based on genes will become a powerful tool for helping people manage their health. For now, though, they’re too prohibitive to make a difference for the average American. But that doesn’t mean you can’t create your very own personalized diet plan. Through an elimination diet and following the healing foods diet — or a clean eating meal plan — you can listen to the person who knows your body best to give it what it needs: you.