Can Mapping Your DNA Help You Diet?

doctor putting liquid in vial

“DNA your diet.” It sounds great, doesn’t it? Swap a little spit for a personalized diet plan based on your DNA that will get you to your goal weight in record time—and keep you there.

But can a DNA diet test reveal the foods most likely to make us gain weight or lose it? As it turns out… maybe. But we haven’t cracked the code just yet.

DNA Diet – The Theory

Put a group of people on a diet—the same diet—and some will lose a lot of weight, some a little, a few will see no change, and others will gain. In a recent study at Stanford University, there was an 80 pound variation between the biggest loser and gainer. Bodies just don’t respond the same way to the same foods, so there’s got to be more going on than the simple equation “calories in, calories out.”

Maybe the answer lies in our genes: if the BRCA gene can mean a higher risk of breast cancer, doesn’t it follow that our genes could cause us to metabolize our food in a certain way, or make us more sensitive to one type of food than another?

If we can identify the genes that control weight and understand their expression, so the theory goes, we can determine which foods to eat and which to avoid to feed our bodies right. The idea has scientific basis: scientists know gene CYP1A2 affects how we metabolize caffeine, for example.

DNA Diet – Put Into Practice

Weight-loss companies are already offering tailored recommendations based on your particular set of genetic markers.

Weight-loss enterprise embodyDNA looks at 32 genetic markers to determine if the user has a predisposition towards a higher BMI, or is particularly prone to weight gain from sugary drinks. Paired with the Lose It! app to track consumption, exercise, and weight, dieters get insight into how their eating and drinking habits are promoting—or preventing—success.

Arivale offers a “Beat your genes: nutrition and diet coaching” program also based around genetic data and your particular predispositions when it comes to how your body manages food. Do you gain more weight from carbohydrates or fats? Are you more likely than the average person to add pounds when inactive? Your DNA will tell you, Arivale contends, and if you eat accordingly, you’ll lose the weight.

DNA Diet – Does It Work?

A study of 100 overweight women initially seemed promising. Researchers matched genotypes with diet, putting some women on low-fat diets and some on low-carb, and those whose diet matched their genetics lost two to three times more weight than those whose diets didn’t.

However, a much larger study of 600 overweight adults also tracked on low-fat or low-carb diets, failed to show the same results. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “There was no significant difference in 12-month weight loss between the HLF [healthy low fat] and HLC [healthy low carbohydrate] diets, and neither genotype pattern nor baseline insulin secretion was associated with the dietary effects on weight loss.”

Translation: it didn’t work.

So why do some people lose weight?

There could be several explanations why programs such as Arivale and embodyDNA have proven successful for many: first, we’ve known for a long time that tracking what you eat and what you burn can be an effective—if annoying—way to manage weight. It may simply be that we eat less or better or both when we’re keeping track.

Second, the recommendations clients of these companies report receiving are good advice: Eat more veggies, drink fewer sugary drinks, be less sedentary. Broadly speaking, even without the DNA-profile piece, these things often lead to weight loss, if done consistently. It’s also possible that matching DNA to diet has some small effect, even if it’s not the holy grail of weight management we’re all hoping for.

Finally, diets often do work. At first. Radical changes in the way we eat can cause us to lose water weight, even some fat … until we shift back to our old eating habits, and the pounds come back, often bringing friends.

Is it worth it to get the DNA diet test?

If you want to geek out over the science, you have a couple hundred bucks to spare, and you keep your expectations reasonable (low), getting your DNA mapped could be an interesting exercise. After all, genetic study is still quite new, and further research could prove more effective—at which time you’ll be ahead of all those scoffers.

The human genome has three billion base pairs. Even the most sophisticated DNA analysis for weight management barely scratches the surface. So, until the science catches up and provides us with the ideal meal plan for our bodies and our weight goals, eat well, get good sleep, make sure you’re feeding your gut right, dress spectacularly, and love the body you’re in.


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