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Personalised nutrition and why fad diets are dead

Studies consistently show dieters rarely maintain their weight loss and often regain it with interest. With obesity and diabetes now the cause of many chronic health conditions, what’s the solution? Food Futurist, Tony Hunter shares his views.

7 min read

Studies consistently show dieters rarely maintain their weight loss and often regain it with interest. With obesity and diabetes now the cause of many chronic health conditions, what’s the solution? Food Futurist, Tony Hunter shares his views.

Is it possible some dieters would do better if they ate ice cream rather than tomatoes? Or biscuits rather than bananas?

It appears they would, as scientists investigate the benefits of Precision Nutrition which confirms that not only is everybody different, but we all have highly individualised responses to food.

Some of the most interesting work in this area comes from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, where 800 people and over 46,000 meals were studied intensely for a week in 2015.

The results consistently show that glycaemic responses (GR) to the same food (the rate at which blood glucose and insulin levels rise after eating) vary enormously and often surprisingly.

Some individuals, for instance, recorded higher and faster blood glucose spikes after eating bananas, than they did after eating biscuits. Others spiked faster after eating bread compared to consuming straight glucose.

One of the most astonishing results saw spikes after eating artificial sweeteners, when sweeteners should cause no spike at all, as they contain no kilojoules.

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Currently the glycaemic index (GI) of foods is the same for everyone. It’s presumed it provides us all with a list of the optimal foods to keep blood sugars stable and make us feel satisfied after eating. Now, it transpires, that index is merely an average and suggests we should stop scoring foods and instead score the individuals eating the foods.

Our dynamic microbiome – the blueprint to our health


So, what is the strongest predictor of an individual’s glycaemic response or GR? The Weizmann team discovered it was gut microbiome composition – that intriguing combination of bacteria and other microorganisms in the lower intestine shown to affect a range of health and even mood issues.

Weizmann suggested it should therefore be possible to design individualised low GI diets and a subsequent follow-up study, of 100 people, produced yet more surprises.

For some lucky people, a “good” diet might contain unorthodox recommendations such as beer, chocolate and ice cream. Those same people, meanwhile, were advised to steer clear of tomatoes.

As a result of these findings, a predictive machine-learning algorithm was developed. This uses factors such as diet, blood test results, exercise and gut microbiota, to design nutrition recommendations for individuals. These can lead to lower GRs and also a consistently altered gut microbiota.

Israeli startup, Day Two, specialising in personalised nutrition, was spun out of this research – and now sells a commercial kit and app to enable anyone to use the findings in everyday life.

Day Two recently won the 2020 Roche Diabetes Care Innovation Contest – recognition that tailor-made predictions could be seriously useful in minimising and even preventing obesity, prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes, said Food Futurist Tony Hunter.

“Dieting as we know it is dead,” he added.

Cooking styles just as important as kilojoules

So how about our genetics, do they determine our responses to food? Another prescriptive service, ZOE, developed by the team at PREDICT, the world’s largest ongoing nutrition program, combines clinical trials by world-leading experts and investigated food responses in more than 1,100 adults.

Their research goes further, suggesting it’s not just what we eat but how and when we eat that matters. Circadian rhythms, for instance, were a factor so individuals responded differently to the same meal depending on whether they ate it for lunch or breakfast. Reactions also changed according to age, with younger people experiencing this effect more so than those over 60 years.

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“Significantly the optimal meal composition with respect to fat, proteins, carbohydrates and fibre was highly individual as well so diets based around these macronutrients are far too simplistic,” Tony explained.

“Even the caloric value of a meal and nutritional responses were weakly correlated. More important was how the food was prepared and consumed, e.g. cooked, chopped or minced.”

It’s clear too that food reactions are not genetic as 60% of the PREDICT study were identical twins. They also responded differently to the same meals and, confirming the gut microbiome link, it was discovered twins share only 37% of gut bacteria, compared to 35% shared between two unrelated individuals.

Pioneering research to empower healthy eating

The US National Institute of Health announced in August 2020, that Precision Nutrition will be a research priority over the next ten years and already more companies are preparing prescription programs – even wearables that monitor your health.

Melbourne-based med-tech startup, Nutromics is developing the world-first personalised nutrition wearable sensor, designed to measure key dietary biomarkers, help prevent chronic disease and manage acute conditions.

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A collaborative team led by Griffith University, RMIT and Australian manufacturer Romar Engineering, with support from the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC), is now researching and developing the required manufacturing capabilities to pilot manufacture the device.

The wearable smart patch will enable users to track how their body responds to different foods with real-time data.

So what does this mean for the food industry? Kilojoules will still matter. Even if ice cream is one of your better foods, eating a tub a day is not a good idea. Similarly healthy eating guidelines including fruit, vegetables, pulses and limited processed food, will still endure.

However, predicts Tony, “I believe we’re going to see a convergence of much of the food and health industries over the next few decades.

“Current blanket diets, even those proposed by national bodies, are woefully inadequate for many people. What’s needed is an individual diet that takes into account an individual’s biology, microbiome and a myriad of environmental factors.

Factors such as exercise, meal timing and even food preparation need to be factored in for an individual to achieve a healthy weight.”

The recent creation of virtual metabolic twins, known as Harvey and Harvetta, may help us achieve that in the future. Run by our personal AI, they’ll predict our nutritional response to any food and help us make healthy choices, drawing upon some 80,000 organ-specific reactions covering 26 organs and six blood cell types.

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It’s an exciting time for the food industry, said Tony with the rise of personalised nutrition and a plethora of opportunities for food innovators.

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