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Personalized Nutrition Advice Is on the Rise, But Does It Work?

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Key Takeaways

  • Personalized nutrition (PN) is nutrition advice based on an individual's data, such as metabolism, biochemistry, and microbiome.
  • With the ever-increasing availability of DNA tests, at-home blood tests, and other health data tests, PN is on the rise.
  • PN may help individuals manage their weight, better control their blood sugar and cholesterol, and find the most beneficial exercise plan.

Every year brings new diet and nutrition trends, and one thing we’re guaranteed to hear a lot about in 2021 is personalized nutrition. But what sets it apart from other trends is that, well, it’s not a trend at all.

A recent review published in the journal Advances in Nutrition sought to investigate whether or not personalized nutrition plans are more beneficial than generalized diet advice, and the results suggested that they are.

"We know that overall, diets don't work," says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. "Most people who lose weight gain it all back plus more. With an obesity rate of over 42%, consumers, researchers and medical professionals are hoping science will provide the key to determining which interventions will work for individuals."

And it’s not simply about weight loss, Harris-Pincus adds. "Personalized nutrition may be able to tell us how to better control blood sugar and cholesterol and what types of exercise will provide more benefits."?

What Is Personalized Nutrition, Exactly?

That’s where it gets a little complicated, because personalized nutrition (PN) still isn’t well defined. "In general, people define it as nutrition based upon the individual," says Tanya Freirich, RD, CDN. An individual’s data can be collected in various ways, she adds, such as via DNA tests, stool studies (to assess the microbiome in your colon), tests of metabolism, and biochemistry.?

An article published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in December 2019 noted that personalized nutrition (PN) has been described in a variety of ways, including "precision nutrition," "individualized nutrition," and "nutritional genomics."??????

While these definitions vary slightly, the authors agree that the goal of PN is to "advance human health and wellbeing by tailoring nutrition recommendations and interventions to individuals or groups of individuals with similar traits."

Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN

Personalized nutrition may be able to tell us how to better control blood sugar and cholesterol and what types of exercise will provide more benefits.

— Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN

PN isn’t necessarily a new thing, but Freirich says it’s on the rise partly because personalized data is so accessible. "DNA tests are cheaper and more readily available than ever," she says. "Most people can track their activity levels, heart rates, and oxygen saturation with a smart watch or activity tracker. Many other advances in science and research give us valuable information regarding other tests, like biochemistry and microbiome."

Harris-Pincus says there’s a scale of complexity when it comes to PN. "It can be as simple as working with a person to implement behavior changes, or as complex as using a person’s genetic code to determine which types of foods and lifestyles interventions may uniquely benefit them," she explains.

Whatever PN looks like for you, the idea is that it helps you achieve a lasting dietary change for long term health benefits, Harris-Pincus adds.?

What the Study Showed

In a recent systematic review of personalized nutrition trials, published in the international review journal Advances in Nutrition, researchers from the world-leading Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, set out to evaluate whether personalized nutrition advice improved dietary intake more than generalized dietary advice.???????

After reviewing randomized controlled trials that tested the effect of PN and tailored advice, conducted between 2009 and 2020 (from three databases – EMBASE, PubMed, and CINAHL), the IPAN team analyzed 11 studies from the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Overall, they found that dietary intake is more likely to improve when people receive PN advice than generalized dietary advice.??

Tanya Freirich, RD, CDN

It's important that registered dietitians should be the practitioner providing nutrition or diet-related advice. The best practitioners individualize their recommendations on the person they are advising with the information they can gather. That may include dietary preferences, medical history, symptoms, bloodwork, schedule, and lifestyle.

— Tanya Freirich, RD, CDN

"These findings have implications for the design of future PN interventions aiming to improve healthy eating behaviors," wrote the authors. "More well-designed and executed RCTs [randomized controlled trials] are required to strengthen the evidence base for PN, so that, if appropriate, these strategies can be effectively incorporated into health care."

What's the Future of Personalized Nutrition?

It's definitely promising, Harris-Pincus says. However, she points out that the research at this point is far from definitive. "Most current genetic tests are consumer-facing, expensive, and lack strong scientific backing," she says. "I think research on nutrigenetics (the study of the relationship between genes, diet, and health outcomes), nutrigenomics (how foods affect us on a genetic level), and the microbiome (the ecosystem of microorganisms –?bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and viruses – that live throughout your digestive system) will reveal a lot more in the future."

"It's important that knowledgeable, licensed, experienced registered dietitians should be the practitioner providing nutrition or diet related advice," Freirich says. "The best practitioners individualize their recommendations on the person they are advising with the information they can gather. That may include dietary preferences, medical history, symptoms, bloodwork, schedule, and lifestyle."

What This Means For You

If you want personalized nutrition advice, the best way to start is by making an appointment with a licensed registered dietitian. Often, the best recommendations are by word of mouth. Otherwise, you can search for an RD in your area on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website.

An experienced professional can help you figure out what your health concerns, needs, and goals are, and identify what tests might help you find out what diet and lifestyle changes are necessary for optimum health.

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  1. Bush, C et al. Toward the Definition of Personalized Nutrition: A Proposal by The American Nutrition Association. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2020 Dec. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2019.1685332

  2. Jinnette R et al. Does personalized nutrition advice improve dietary intake in healthy adults? A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Advances in Nutrition. 2020 Dec. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmaa144