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People are pouring their blood, spit and tears into finding the best diet for their bodies.
April Summerford, a women’s health coach in Fresno, Calif., has spent thousands of dollars over the past several years taking at-home DNA tests, reading her hormone levels and analyzing the bacteria in her gut to create the perfect diet for her particular body. She eats organic foods and avoids alcohol, because her DNA results revealed that she doesn’t detox well. She learned that she has an insulin sensitivity, so she follows a low-carb diet to manage blood sugar. And after years of suffering chronic pain and issues such as leaky gut, she said her quality of life is better than ever.
“I’ve been able to biohack my way to feeling better through what, I think, is the future of wellness,” Summerford, 34, told MarketWatch.
Americans are losing the battle of the bulge, with half of the country expected to be obese within the next 10 years, according to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. About 40% of adults and 19% of kids and teens are obese, which raises their risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A 2017 review estimated that the medical cost of obesity in the U.S. is $342.2 billion a year, while the CDC puts the indirect costs of obesity-related health issues — such as absenteeism, premature disability, declines in productivity and earlier death — at between $3 billion and $6.4 billion a year.
One potentially promising development that could help reduce obesity is nutrigenomics, which studies how genes determine the body’s response to the nutrients in food and drinks — and which generated more than $170 million in revenue in 2018, according to Global Market Insights, driven in part by direct-to-consumer genetic-testing companies including 23andMe, Ancestry and MapMyGenome. The analysis expects “robust growth” for nutrigenomics in the near future.
The theory is that while there is no single obesity gene (in fact, hundreds may be connected to being overweight and obese), different DNA markers, hormones and gut microbes can indicate health traits such as how well a person metabolizes food. And this knowledge can be used to help the 93.3 million adults in the U.S. who are currently obese to slim down or maintain a healthy weight.
Global market research group Mintel predicts that as tech advances make personal-health-testing kits more accessible and affordable, hyperindividualized smart diets will become one of the top three global food and beverage trends over the next 10 years.
So a decade from now, you might eat a specific lettuce variety that has been developed through smart farming to have the most iron in it, because your biometric readings show that you need more iron that day. Or you’ll customize your Starbucks
order down to the grams of sugar in the drink, based on your blood sugar.
“Customers already want to go to a coffee shop and get something that is completely designed to their specifications,” Jenny Zegler, the associate director of food and drink market research at Mintel, told MarketWatch. “And I think the expectation is only going to grow as consumers get more of this data, and as they can easily test themselves.”
Lumen’s $349 hand-held breathalyzer measures whether your body is burning fats or carbs for fuel at the moment. It then tailors your diet recommendations in an app depending on the metabolic gases found in your breath.
Many people are hungry to learn more about themselves. After all, the Apple Watch isn’t only dominating the smartwatch market; these timepieces — which can now take an electrocardiogram, measure your heart rate and call 911 if you fall — outsold the entire Swiss watch industry last year, according to Strategy Analytics. Alphabet
unit Google bought Fitbit for $2.1 billion in November to boost its health-care ecosystem. And now the direct-to-consumer genetic-testing market is expected to pass $2.5 billion by 2025, with one study estimating that around 100 million people worldwide will have their DNA mapped by 2021.
So as tech CEOs including Twitter’s
Jack Dorsey have helped make biohacking cool, people like health coach Summerford are using their biometrics to decode the best diets for their bodies.
“Everyone knows the basic pillars of good health: You should exercise, avoid too much sugar. But it’s annoying when you follow broad-strokes advice and it doesn’t work,” said Summerford. “We’re all different. So what do I need?”
There are plenty of brands ready to tell her — for a price. Personalized lifestyle plans that use at-home DNA tests abound, including DNAFit (starting at $189), Profile Precise ($300) and Nutrigenomix ($500). Customers take a cheek swab or finger-prick blood test at home to provide the genetic sample, which is sent to the company’s lab. (Those getting their gut biomes analyzed by Viome for $399 have to provide a stool sample.) GenoPalate is able to use 23andMe and Ancestry DNA samples to customize a meal plan for $69.
Even Jenny Craig’s new DNA Decoder Plan ($100 for new customers) showed “really promising results” after tests in Boston and other markets last year, board Chairman Monty Sharma said.
“We saw every single customer of ours lose weight,” he said, without elaborating. What’s more, Jenny Craig customers who tried the DNA kit were staying with the program 25% longer than those who weren’t using the DNA option, he said.
‘Nutrigenomics is still a growing field. And using DNA or microbiomes to guide us on what to eat … it’s a fantastic idea; it’s certainly where we are going in the future.’
— Dr. Avigdor Arad, Mount Sinai Physiolab
Customers also want to take the guesswork out of what’s good for them, which is where devices like the Lumen come in. The company has developed a $349 handheld breathalyzer that measures whether your body is burning fats or carbs for fuel at the moment. It then tailors your diet recommendations in an app, depending on the metabolic gases found in your breath. Lumen has shipped more than 13,000 devices around the world since launching in 2018, and it’s sold out until March.
“There will be a lot more of, ‘How can you make this easy for me?’ ” said Zegler.
Nestlé Japan has been testing personalized diets using artificial intelligence, social media and DNA kits under its Nestlé Wellness Ambassador program. Subscribers drink nutrient-fortified teas tailored to their genetic needs, which come in the form of Nespresso-like capsules. Mintel’s Zegler mused that people may one day be able to 3D-print exactly which foods their blood or spit tests say their bodies need.
Granted, we’re still years away from hyper-customized coffee orders down to the grams of sugar and caffeine, or 3D-printing food based on that day’s biometrics becoming a reality. And not everyone has been thrilled by their DNA diet experience.
Diet and fitness coach Ginny Erwin, 54, spent $200 on Habit, a personalized nutrition-and-meal-delivery company in which Campbell Soup
invested $32 million in 2016. (Habit is now owned by Viome.) The process involved fasting for 10 hours, and then taking a blood sample before and after drinking a shake mixed with carbs, fats and protein; this measured how her body reacted to the ingredients in the shake.
“I became ill from blood sugar overload,” she said, including stomach cramps and diarrhea. (A few journalists who have test-driven the diet also complained about the shake.) And once her test results were in, she said it gave her generic health advice, and not the specific dietary recommendations she wanted. She reached out to the company several times, but never received a response, although she did get a refund once the business restructured to scrap the DNA test. The company didn’t respond to MarketWatch’s requests for comment.
“DNA testing might give you some grains of information, but there is so much more to it than that,” said Erwin, who ultimately hired a registered dietitian to get personalized nutrition coaching. “It is such a bigger picture than looking at if you’re lactose-sensitive or gluten-sensitive. Your genetics load your gun, and then your lifestyle pulls the trigger.”
Researchers including Dr. Avigdor Arad, the director of the Mount Sinai Physiolab in New York, agree that many DNA diets promise more than they can deliver — for now. A 2018 Stanford study found “no significant difference in weight change” when people were on a diet that “matched” their DNA versus one that didn’t. But we also know that a one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss doesn’t work, because everyone’s body is different. A study last year found that even identical twins process food differently.
There’s a way to biohack weight loss; researchers are still in the process of figuring it out.
“Nutrigenomics is still a growing field. And using DNA or microbiomes to guide us on what to eat … it’s a fantastic idea; it’s certainly where we are going in the future,” Arad told MarketWatch. “But I don’t think we are really there yet.”
Nicole Lyn Pesce is a New York–based reporter for MarketWatch.