• Brian Bender, PhD

Nutrition Data: The Ultimate Guide to Personalized Nutrition

Why Do We Need Nutrition Data?

Rates of obesity are rising in every country on Earth. Much of the developed world has taken food for granted. Calories are now relatively easy to come by. And with it, a host of preventable chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease, many cancers, and an array of musculoskeletal disorders.

Furthermore, micronutrient deficiencies continue to be widespread. Globally, 2 billion people suffer from low micronutrient intake of one or more essential vitamins and minerals. Many of these are present in developing nations and are due to more systemic problems surrounding social, economic, and political issues. But low micronutrient intake is prevalent even in America, and certain groups are at a high risk for micronutrient deficiencies.

"Food, once our source of health, has become our biggest source of disease."

In order to get the world’s diet back on track, and to enable each and every one of us to reach peak health and performance, 3 processes could help.

  1. Identify the diet and nutritional needs that uniquely fit your body and your mind,

  2. Track and maintain these diets over the course of a lifetime, and

  3. Monitor your health outcomes and adjust where needed.

Fortunately, new science is being discovered and new products and services are being developed to make the process of collecting personal nutrition data easier.

So what exactly is personalized nutrition? How can it help me? What products and services can I use from home to personalize my diet?

What Is Personalized Nutrition?

At its core, personalized nutrition is a diet designed to fit the physical, mental, and environmental needs of an individual.

Nutritional needs are much like people. We’re similar in many ways, but we also have differences in the way our bodies have developed and the lives we each live.

We have different preferences, different cultures, and different biochemical reactions to food.

Personalized nutrition applies this logic to nutrition.

Emotions and preferences are heavily wrapped up in our diets, and culture is a big part of the discussion. It may be a losing battle to ask Okinawans to give up rice or Sardinians to give up wine. And despite their different diets, these “Blue Zones” both have large populations that tend to live past 100 with relatively low rates of chronic diseases.

But we also can possess different biochemical reactions to food as well.

Allergies are a clear example. Roughly 3 million Americans have coeliac disease and cannot eat gluten, peanut allergies have more than tripled in U.S. children over the last few decades, and you can even develop an allergic reaction to meat through the spread of a virus from a tick bite.

But it goes far beyond these obvious constraints.

Differences in genetics can alter predispositions for certain health outcomes; one person may possess genetic qualities that predispose them to gaining weight more easily, while another may possess inefficient vitamin B12 metabolism.

And although these studies are too early to make definitive predictions, some research has shown that individuals possess certain genes that have better health outcomes on a high-carb, low-fat diet, while other genes suggest better outcomes on a low-carb, high-fat diet. Other genes have shown links to high blood pressure, appetite, and many other aspects of diet-related health outcomes.

The lives we lead also greatly impacts our biochemistry and metabolism, each affected by changes in things like stress, sleep, family eating dynamics, and diet itself. Differences in lifestyles and environmental conditions can alter epigenetic modifications to your genes and shift gut microbiota composition.

And these effects are likely not the same in everybody. A recent study in Cell showed a widely varying glycemic response between individuals to the same meals. In addition to clinical differences, like the amount of sleep they got the night before, their gut bacteria composition played a substantial role in their body’s response to food. And while your gut bacteria affects which foods you should eat, your food in turn affects your gut microbiome diversity.

Epigentics may play a role too. Epigenetics refers to modifications in gene expression. This means, certain lifestyle and environmental conditions may change which of your genes are promoted or inhibited.

Research is accumulating on the role epigenetics may play on nutritional health outcomes, particularly for environmental conditions in early-life. And although this was only a rat-study, an interesting finding showed obese rats produced epigenetic changes that resulted in decreased leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full. Epigenetics will be an interesting area of research to watch.

When it comes to weight loss, many diets of varying macronutrient composition have been tried. A recent review and meta-analysis showed they can all work to help lower weight. The biggest determinant was whether study participants could stick to the diet.

There are some broad commonalities. Protein may increase satiety and thus, make it easier for more people to consume fewer calories because they feel more full for longer. And carbohydrates, in general, tend to produce a higher glycemic response after meals.

But these studies in gut microbiome and gene expression are beginning to shed light on the reality that the magnitude of these effects can vary quite dramatically in different people.

Finding the Diet that Works Best for You

Personalized nutrition is the recognition that certain diets are individually better suited for certain people. This accounts for variability in personal preferences and dietary constraints, as well as biological variations in genetics, epigenetics, and gut microbiota.

Long-standing dietary advice from major health organizations still hold true. Listen to the expert opinions on major macro and micronutrient recommendations. Their advice will rarely lead one astray.

But often, achieving their targets and your own personal goals can be easier said than done. Personalizing and optimizing your diet using nutrition data to fit your unique biology and environmental conditions can help optimize and accelerate your progress to help you meet your goals.

Why Should I Optimize My Nutrition

Let’s start from the beginning. The first law of thermodynamics says:

Energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

There’s no getting around that one. But - it can be transformed.

Enter, food.

Nutrition is our body’s fuel. We can’t live without it. But there’s a difference between living with optimal health, and just living. For example, The Michael Phelps Diet was 8,000 - 12,000 calories a day. He needed OLYMPIC-scale energy. He doesn’t just train like the normal weekend warrior. He needs to maintain peak energy throughout training as well as on race day.

Conversely, it’s easy to live on a poor diet for quite some time; all the while building a lifetime’s worth of poor dietary habits that lead to many of the chronic diseases facing us today.

Calories are directly defined as a unit of energy. Energy is locked up in the chemical bonds within food molecules.

I good way to think of the energy you consume is by the ratio of your macronutrients - fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. They all contain energy your body can use, but in different ways. We’ll dive deeper into that later.

During digestion, these molecules get oxidized. Essentially, vitamins, minerals, and other enzymes break these chemical bonds apart, releasing energy. That energy is generally repackaged into ATP - the body’s energy currency.

Unused energy typically gets stored for later, generally in the form of fat.

So, I’ll just track my calories, right?

Calories are important, yes. Those who track and reduce caloric intake routinely lose weight and improve cardiovascular health.

And yes, if you ingest more calories than you burn, over time, you will gain weight.

But the energy balance equation of calories in and calories out is riddled with personalization that complicates the math. Some examples:

  • Resting metabolism: Just sitting on the couch, we all burn calories at a different rate.

  • Gut Microbiota: Different diets and environmental conditions change your gut bacteria composition. For example, some people can extract more calories from fiber than others.

  • Genetics: Each person’s DNA is unique to them (except for twins!). And just like hair color, they can change the way your body reacts to food.

  • Macronutrient Composition: Your body reacts to them differently. For example, were your calories from protein or sugar?

  • Micronutrient Composition: Your age, gender, genetics, and lifestyle affect which vitamins and minerals you may be in need of.

This guide will dive deeper into where this personalization comes from, and how to go about collecting nutrition data to personalize your diet.

You Can't Improve What you Don't Measure

Optimization occurs along a particular dimension, so you must decide along which dimension you are looking to optimize.

Body-builders may be going for bulk, long-distance runners may need to ensure long-term fuel and adequate mineral ratios, and chess champions require their brain to be firing on all cylinders.

You may be looking to simply find a consistent diet you love that allows you to optimize long-term health and general wellbeing. Or perhaps you are looking to lose weight efficiently, adhere to a dietary regime like veganism. or are experimenting with something new like a ketogenic diet.

Whatever your goal may be, they all start with the same step.

To optimize your diet, you must routinely and reliably monitor your dietary intake patterns.

Optimization requires experimentation and refinement over time. And