Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney
Can a personalize nutrition assessment provide you with information to assist your health strategy? We’ve been told that genetic testing is the wave of the future. We’ve been promised that genetic testing will tell us which diseases we are most likely to develop. Of course, the unspoken assumption is that if we knew which diseases were most likely to kill us, we’d be highly motivated to make the diet and lifestyle changes needed to reduce the risk of that disease.
But what if a personalized nutrition assessment based on a simple online diet survey was just as effective at getting us to make better food choices as all those fancy genetic tests? That is just what a recent study suggests.
How Was The Study Designed?
The study was based on a simple online diet survey called Food4Me developed by University College Dublin and Crème Software Ltd. The Food4Me diet survey asks people how many times per week or per day they eat basic food groups and develops personalized diet recommendations based on what they are actually eating. It is a very simple, user friendly, survey requiring only 5-10 minutes to complete. Consumer satisfaction with this kind of survey is high. For example:
- 92% of participants said that “the Food4Me website was easy to use.”
- 76% of participants were “satisfied with the detail of information they received in their personalized nutrition report.”
- 80% of participants felt that “the dietary advice in the report was relevant to them.”
In spite of its simplicity and ease of use, the Food4Me survey is also quite robust. Previous studies have shown that the reproducibility and validity of the Food4Me diet survey compares very favorably with much more extensive dietary analyses (For example, R. Fallaize, et al., Journal of Medical Internet Research, 16: e190, 2014).
This study (International Journal of Epidemiology, 2016, 1-11, doi:110.093/ije/dyw186) measured the effectiveness of the Food4Me personalized nutrition reports at improving health-related behaviors. It was a 6-month randomized control study of 1269 adults from 7 European countries. It compared 4 different interventions on health-related behavior changes. The 4 interventions were:
- standardized dietary advice
- personalized nutrition advice based on the Food4Me survey
- personalized nutrition advice based on the Food4Me survey plus BMI and blood biomarkers
- personalized nutrition advice based on all that plus genetic testing
Is Personalized Nutrition The Wave Of The Future?
The results of the study were quite striking:
- Compared to the group who just received standardized diet advice, the groups who received personalized nutrition advice were significantly more successful at improving health related behaviors. In particular, the groups receiving personalized nutrition advice:
- Adding information on blood biomarkers (cholesterol, carotenoids, omega-3s, and vitamin D) and genotype received did not enhance the effectiveness of the personalized nutrition recommendations at changing health behaviors.
What Does This Study Mean For You?
This is a single study, but it does suggest several interesting take-home lessons.
#1: We are much more likely to follow diet advice that is personalized to us than we are to follow standardized diet advice. This should come as no surprise. We’ve had generalized diet advice like the USDA Food Guide Pyramid and, more recently, the USDA My Plate guidelines for decades, and they haven’t moved the needle. Maybe people think of generalized guidelines as applying to other people and personalized guidelines as applying to them. Personalized nutrition seems to be more effective.
#2: This was personalized diet advice, not weird diet advice. The participants were not being told to eat as much fat as they wanted. They weren’t being told that avoiding wheat will make them slimmer and smarter. They weren’t being told to eat like a caveman. They were being given USDA-approved diet recommendations. The only difference was that the dietary recommendations were personalized to them. For example, they were only being told to eat more fruits and vegetables if, in fact, fruits and vegetables were not a regular part of their daily diet.
#3: Blood biomarkers did not provide any additional incentive to increase health related behaviors. I wouldn’t read too much into this observation. With the exception of cholesterol, the blood biomarkers selected for this study merely reinforced the diet analysis. For example, you could ask whether low blood carotenoid levels really provided any additional incentive to change their diet for an individual who was already told their intake of fruits and vegetables was low. If the study had measured disease-related blood biomarkers, it might have found that they provided additional incentive for individuals to make positive diet changes.
#4: Genetic testing did not provide any additional incentive to increase health related behaviors. This probably simply reflects the state of the science. Current genetic tests are only weakly predictive of major diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer so they provide little incentive to make major lifestyle changes. This may change in the future as we improve our understanding of genetic influences on disease risks.
This study clearly showed that a simple online diet survey like the Food4Me personalized diet assessment is very useful for changing health-related dietary behavior. However, this study also missed several opportunities to create an even more valuable tool for improving health-related behaviors. For example, the study collected data on obesity and activity levels, but did not attempt to provide personalized lifestyle recommendations based on that data. In addition, 44% of the participants reported that they had a disease, but no attempt was made to include health goals in the personalized diet and lifestyle recommendations.
The Bottom Line
- A recent study showed that personalized nutrition recommendations based on a simple online survey were much more effective than standardized dietary advice at getting people to improve health-related eating habits.
- Adding information on blood biomarkers and genetic tests did not enhance the effectiveness of the personalized nutrition recommendations at changing health behaviors.
- The study did not evaluate the value of adding activity levels and health goals to the assessment. That perhaps represented a missed opportunity to create an even more powerful tool for positively influencing health-related behaviors.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.