Lots of people think the path to ideal health and fitness goes through one specific type of diet that has worked for others. In order to achieve your own fitness goals – whether they involve weight loss, muscle building, or athletic performance – you may feel you need to follow a one-size-fits all program that has already worked for people you know.
While this may seem logical, research is beginning to show that it may not be the best way to achieve optimal health and fitness outcomes. Personalized nutrition is defined as the creation of an eating plan with dietary recommendations designed specifically for your body and lifestyle. In this article, we’ll explain personalized nutrition more in-depth, provide some examples, and discuss the potential health advantages of this style of eating.
Everyone has heard of popular nutrition styles: the keto diet, the Atkins diet, paleo, etc. Many are just different varieties of the same kind of low-carbohydrate diet, an eating style that emphasizes consuming fats instead of carbs. Other styles of eating like the Warrior diet and intermittent fasting restrict the specific times at which you can consume food, with less restriction on specific food choices.
While it’s possible to find success with these kinds of health and nutrition plans, many registered dietitians and wellness experts recommend personalized nutrition as a more effective approach. The term is a broad one that can apply in several different ways, and with the field still growing, there isn’t yet a universally-accepted definition for the idea.
In a recent issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, the American Nutrition Association proposed the following definition for “personalized nutrition”:
“a field that leverages human individuality to drive nutrition strategies that prevent, manage, and treat disease and optimize health.”
It went on to more broadly define personalized nutrition into three sub-categories: science and data, professional education and training, and guidance and therapeutics. Other research highlights efforts to use advanced chemistry and artificial intelligence to study the human genome and create a personalized nutrition plan based on our DNA and microbiome, the tiny bacteria, fungi and other microbes that live in our guts. Preliminary scientific evidence has linked these personalized, genotype-based diets to the treatment of epilepsy, diabetes and even cancer.
However, there are some disagreements about the current viability of DNA-based diet. A 2018 study reported "no significant diet-genotype interaction" in a study that tracked the 12-month weight loss rates of participants on either low-carb or low-fat diets.
Again, there’s no widely-held standard definition of personalized nutrition. It could be something as simple as coming up with your own meal plan that meets your nutritional needs while being something you can follow indefinitely, to something as complex as undergoing genetic testing to determine the best style of eating for your needs. There is an entire field called nutrigenomics devoted to studying the interaction between genetic biomarkers and nutrients. But you don't need advanced algorithms or a thorough understanding of your genetic makeup to plan a healthy diet that helps you avoid chronic disease and other problematic health conditions.
When you are creating your personal nutrition plan, there are a few important considerations to keep in mind:
Management of health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, liver disease, osteoporosis, pancreatitis, kidney disease and other conditions should all be considered in a personalized plan
Food intolerances and allergies– Eliminate any foods that you may be allergic or intolerant to and replace them with a nutrient equivalent alternative to avoid deficiencies. For example, if you are lactose intolerant and exclude milk, be sure to find a milk alternative fortified with vitamin D and calcium.
Lifestyle – Consider your personal food budget and how much time and energy you intend to put towards grocery shopping and food preparation. Some people may have a long commute during the work week, while others might work from home all day with easy access to the kitchen. Others may live in an area with minimal access to certain foods, or not have the cooking skills or appliances needed for some types of recipes.
Food preferences - Include foods you enjoy eating and new foods you are willing to try. A healthy eating meal plan that you have to force yourself to stick to probably won’t last very long. One of the biggest benefits of personalized nutrition is that you’re able to create a plan that works for your tastes, instead of adapting to a popular diet.
There’s still lots of advanced nutrition research left to be done, but so far we know that personalized nutrition can be beneficial for health outcomes in a number of ways:
Managing weight: Early data indicates that personalized nutrition could be an important tool in the fight against obesity, one of the most widespread epidemics in the world that can lead to cardiovascular health problems and is associated with metabolic syndrome. Even if you aren’t at risk of obesity, personalized nutrition can still be valuable in helping you adjust your body composition.
Gut health: As mentioned above briefly, much of personalized nutrition relates to the human gut microbiome, sometimes called the microbiota. Understanding and managing the various levels of microorganisms present in your gut microbiota through inclusion of pre and probiotics may help regulate the immune system and control inflammation.
Improved motivation: Most people are familiar with the experience of eating less-than-enjoyable foods to achieve health and fitness goals. While you will likely have to make some dietary changes if you want to similarly change your health, empower yourself by creating dietary habits that allow you to enjoy foods that you love.
Remember that individual responses to dietary adjustments vary depending on numerous factors, including genetic variations, metabolic rates and other things that are unique to each individual. Don't be discouraged if your results differ from others.
While it’s possible to create your own personalized nutrition plan thanks to the vast amount of healthcare information available online, for best results you’ll want to seek professional help. A trusted source of dietary advice will be able to help you with a personalized diet that takes into account your habits, preferences and level of physical activity. These nutrition recommendations can help prevent conditions like heart disease, high cholesterol, and other negative health outcomes associated with serious risks.
The rapidly developing field of nutritional genomics (also called nutrigenetics) is showing lots of promise for both dietary habits as well as personalized medicine in general. Exciting nutrition research promises to make it easier than ever before to meet our dietary intake goals while minimizing disease risk.
A good starting point is to set daily goals for the three major macronutrients: fats, carbohydrates, and protein. From there, try to fill those macros with foods you enjoy that also provide you with a variety of minerals, vitamins and fiber. After some lifestyle changes and a bit of adjustment, you'll find a personalized diet helps you feel great, more easily achieve health outcomes, and fits better with your individual lifestyle than any cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all diet.
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