Nutritional genomics, more commonly referred to as nutrigenomics, is heralded as having the potential to be “the next big thing in our fight against lifestyle-linked diseases.”
In simple terms, nutrigenomics helps us understand how what we eat and drink interacts with our specific genetic composition and what it means for our health.
Let’s take diets, for example. While one type may work for some or even many, it might not necessarily work for you. Since no two humans are genetically identical, the nutrients you get from that particular diet will interact differently with your genes, which might lead to unintended results.
We all know that maintaining a healthy diet is more than just counting calories. While eating the right amount to avoid gaining too much weight is certainly important, the type of food you choose to nourish and fuel your body is even more critical.
You are what you eat. This saying has been around in some form or other since the 1800s; way before people started being mindful of everything they put into their bodies. In fact, even the Greek physician Hippocrates, who wrote the Hippocratic oath that is still being used by doctors today, is credited with the phrase, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Experts have known—intuitively, even if not quite definitively—that what we eat and drink can have a direct and significant effect on our overall health. This belief led to the development of the science of nutrition, which studies the nutrients in our food, how our body uses these nutrients, and the relationship between diet, health, and disease.
In the late 19th century, genetics, which is the study of genes, genetic variation, and heredity, was introduced. The pinnacle project of this field was the Human Genome Project (HGP), an international scientific research endeavor that remains the world’s largest collaborative biological study.
Launched in 1990 and completed on April 14, 2003, the goal of this research program was the complete mapping and understanding of all the genes of human beings.
It may help simplify things to think of the gene map as the basic set of inheritable “instructions” for the development and function of each individual human being. In short, it’s what makes you, you.
After the conclusion of this study, however, new questions and insights about the influence of nutrients in people’s diet were raised, including:
- Will gene expression in response to metabolic processes influence the health of an individual?
- Are gene expression and metabolic response the result of the interaction between genotype and environment/nutrient?
- Understanding how this interaction process occurs between gene and nutrient could lead to the prescription of specific diets for each individual.
While nutrition focuses on the nutrients that enter our system and its general effect on a human body, and genetics studies heredity and how our genetic makeup may lead to specific traits, nutrigenomics combines the two to study how nutrients modulate or vary gene expression and ultimately influence how the cells, the metabolism, and the organism function as a whole.
How Can Nutrigenomics Be Used to Prevent Disease?
Understanding how an individual’s genetic makeup responds to a particular nutrient provides new opportunities to incorporate natural bioactive compounds into food for a specific group of people with a similar genotype. This is especially applicable to lifestyle-associated diseases such as cardiovascular conditions and diabetes.
Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are differences in a single DNA building block (nucleotide), determine genetic variations among people. Some SNPs can also signify whether a person or race is predisposed to a particular disease. There is convincing evidence that SNPs in certain genes may profoundly influence one’s biological response to nutrients.
Nutrigenomics provides the potential to create personalized, genotype-based nutrition to mitigate risk factors for different individuals or a specific population.
Tools Used in Nutrigenomics to Identify Disease Risk Factors and Progression:
- Food diaries to record nutrient input
- Biomarkers such as metabolite or hormone levels to understand a body’s response
- Genomic assays to identify relevant gene variants
- Clinical data such as age, weight, sex, and body mass index (BMI) to monitor the health impact
Dr. Daggy says: Personalized nutrition is a dream older than the Human Genome Project. There’s growing awareness that the RDAs, which establish target nutrient intakes for a few essential nutrients and are based on the needs of most healthy people, are not the complete story. In theory, personalized nutrition based on genetics, personal health history, and environmental exposures would result in optimal health outcomes. The reality is still far short of the dream, but the falling cost of genetic testing, along with other forms of diagnostics, is bringing us closer to the day when personalized nutrition becomes a reality.
Even though we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to nutrigenomics, learning about its potential gives us the direction and initiative necessary to expedite advancements in the field. Pretty soon, our doctors might easily be able to provide each and every one of us with a more precise nutrient recommendation for our specific genetic makeup, down to the last gram.
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Thanks for reading,
Suzanne & Carl
An Overview of the Human Genome Project
Nutrigenomics: Definitions and Advances of This New Science
Nutrigenomics and its Impact on LifeStyle Associated Metabolic Diseases
Slaying The Food Myths