How individual is our response to food? This is a question that puzzles people who struggle to lose weight on a diet that helps others to shed weight easily.
There are healthy eating messages that apply to everyone, such as eating more fibre, increasing the range of plant-based foods and cutting down on ultra-processed products. However recent research has revealed there are significant individual differences in our reaction to how we digest and metabolise food. Scientists now believe diets can be designed to meet personal nutritional needs rather than taking ‘a one diet fits all’ approach to healthy eating.
What is personalised nutrition?
Personalised nutrition is an approach using individual information to develop targeted nutritional advice, products, or services. Everybody is different in terms of their genetics, the chemicals they have in their body, and the species of microbes they have in their gut. These three factors vary widely between people and affect their response to food. Recent studies have even found that identical twins who share the same genes differ in their response to how their bodies handle glucose and other components of food after eating a meal.
Are the individual responses to food down to genetics alone?
Results from a recent study suggest that genetics explains less than a third of metabolic responses to food, and most responses can be modified.
What is the point of eating a personalised diet?
The idea is that eating what is best for your unique physiology could shield you from the particular illnesses which you may be susceptible to for example, obesity, certain cancers and diabetes.
Why is this approach to diet different?
The idea that there is "one true diet" that works for everyone has been found to be a myth. People think that if they follow a low-fat, calorie-controlled diet, they’ll lose weight and be healthy. Others believe that a high fat, low carbohydrate diet is the only way. But recent research has shown that there are eight-fold differences in responses of normal people to eating identical food and there are wide variations in weight loss between people following the same diet, regardless of whether it’s a low fat or low carbohydrate eating plan.
Are there some good examples of how our response to food differs?
One good example is the time of day meals are eaten. Professor Tim Spector of King’s College, London says ‘some people have better food responses in the evening than the morning, so they should have most of their food then, rather than during the day’. Studies carried out by Professor Spector showed a massive variation in blood glucose and lipid levels after eating, between individuals often involving factors such as individual daily cycles such as the time you wake up.
Bugs in the gut and their impact on the food we eat
Another good example of how our individual response to food differs is due to the bugs in our gut. We all have up to 2kg of bacteria, yeasts and other microbes living in our gut but the type and variety differs between individuals. These bugs interact with the food as it passes through and have profound effect on the body’s response to what is eaten. For example, it has even been shown that overweight people have a very different gut microorganisms to people who are normal weight.
How can personalised nutrition help us eat a healthier diet?
Our metabolism changes throughout life and the good news is that we can improve our response to food. It is not fixed. Simple ways to modify the response to food include changing when meals are eaten, whether you exercise before or after a meal, and changing how much sleep you get.
You can also have a substantial effect on your responses to food by changing your diet. Increasing fibre intake, eating lots of plants, fermented foods, and avoiding highly processed foods can increase the diversity of bugs in your gut and improve your response to food.
The future of nutrition
Very soon tests will be available to help determine the precise steps we can take to modify our diet to better protect our health and prevent diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer.
For more information on research into personalised nutrition follow the link here.
 Sarah Berry, Ana Valdes, Richard Davies, Linda Delahanty, David Drew, Andrew Tan Chan, Nicola Segata, Paul Franks, Tim Spector, Predicting Personal Metabolic Responses to Food Using Multi-omics Machine Learning in over 1000 Twins and Singletons from the UK and US: The PREDICT I Study (OR31-01-19), Current Developments in Nutrition, Volume 3, Issue Supplement_1, June 2019, nzz037.OR31–01–19, https://doi.org/10.1093/cdn/nzz037.OR31-01-19
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