Nutrige-what?! A very slowly growing field that is sparking quite some interest is nutrigenomics. Nutrigenomics studies how genetic and cellular processes affect nutrition and health. While this arena is still in its infancy, it strikes a chord with people for its potential to completely personalize the field of nutrition. Ever since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, all sectors of the medical industry have been interested in the newly visible relationship between individual genes and disease markers. Could the field of nutrition be the next to join the ranks of genetic testing?
A majority of the nutrition recommendations currently made for people are based on population and epidemiological data. While these numbers (based on probably thousands of validated studies in peer-reviewed literature) provide a rough outline, it begins to make the field of nutrition quantifiable. Do you know how many calories are in a pound? Maybe. Do you know how many calories your body burns while eating, sleeping, and walking around? Probably not. But do you know a range of calories that is healthy for you to consume each day? Most likely. That's because food labels, doctor's recommendations, and personal research regarding weight management and health throw this information at you first and foremost. It is based on large scale studies, but it provides you with an idea of what might work. Quick and easy to understand, and you can adjust your diet from there to fit your personal needs.
Genetic Testing to Determine Diet?
Right now both here and in Europe we seem to be a ways off from this (probably largely because the research to support how to go about reading the results just isn't up to speed yet). The field is at a standstill as nutrigenomics research is not getting a lot of funding and the ethics questions are too complex to begin answering. The NCMHD Center for Excellence in Nutritional Genomics is pushing for using this research to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities, understand environment-gene interactions and to incorporate genomics into a multidisciplinary approach to individual healthcare.
I think nutrigenomics is a fascinating field that quite simply isn't well understood [yet]. Imagine knowing what diseases you are genetically at a higher risk for (no more guessing based on family history, ethnicity, and age). Knowing this information years ahead of the diagnosis could in fact help motivate individuals to alter their diet for prevention. It could also go the other way, with a patient resigning themselves to a future disease state. The human psyche is incredibly variable.
Designer Diets instead of Designer Drugs
Personalization is a key word in health care. When it comes to our health we like to know that any and all steps taken will improve our bodies. While the jury is still out on whether this is a viable step towards preventative care or not, I'd like to know what you think! Would you want a genetic test at the doctor's office next time you go in? Based on those results would you meet with a dietician? If your genetic testing comes back with clean results would you be less motivated to eat healthfully and exercise frequently?
Thank you to April for asking about the current state of nutrigenomics and prompting me to write about this. I've realized that I have more questions now after reading up on the latest research than I did before, just knowing a tiny bit about the field. The field inherently raises complex questions. Be sure to keep an eye out to see how this field progresses over the next few years! It just might enter the public policy and health care reform debate...