Personalized Nutrition Is the Future of Wellness — Here’s What You Need to Know
We have never been more obsessed with wellness than we are now. From wearable fitness to mental wellness apps, the global wellness industry is booming. The most recent estimates from the Global Wellness Institute value the global wellness economy at $4.4 trillion, with a projected 9.9% annual growth. Healthy eating and nutrition alone account for $702 billion, with 43% of Americans following a prescribed diet.
We have also never been more confused by wellness than we are now. “There’s so much information and misinformation and it’s coming from so many different sources,” explains Loneke T. Blackman Carr, Ph.D., R.D., an assistant professor of community and public health nutrition at the University of Connecticut. One day, it’s common knowledge is that eggs will give you heart disease; the next day, reports on studies name them nature’s greatest superfood. One day, intermittent fasting is the secret to weight loss; the next day, the weight loss is minimal, and we find that people are mostly losing muscle mass doing IF.
“Many people are so paralyzed by conflicting nutrition information and dueling opinions that they have no idea what to eat,” Carr says. “As a result, people who are motivated to make healthy lifestyle changes struggle to find a sustainable way to do so.”
The Problem with “Healthy”
The truth is, there is no one truth about eggs. Or red meat, gluten, or dairy — and that’s because there is no single definition of what healthy is. There is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to nutrition. That’s because humans are all different. And the differences in our anatomy, metabolism, body composition, cellular structure, and genetics — big and small — mean we each have unique, personal nutritional needs.
“People fall into these traps of thinking they have to eat a certain way,” says Marvin Singh, MD, an integrative gastroenterologist. He regularly sees patients who are eating certain foods because of something they read or a friend who had great success with a particular diet. “There are a lot of nuances to health and nutrition,” he says. “Diet is a very personalized thing. Food sensitivities, microbiome issues, and genetics are all involved and really influences what you should eat.”
What Is Personalized Nutrition?
The American Nutrition Association defines personalized nutrition as “a way of eating that focuses on the understanding that human individuality is what drives nutrition strategies that prevent, manage, and treat disease and optimize health.” This definition might conjure up images of advanced analyses or unaffordable nutrigenomic testing. But personalized nutrition is actually pretty simple. In fact, you’re probably already doing it to some degree in your own life right now.
Do you avoid certain foods because they give you reflux or make you feel tired? Maybe you continue to eat certain foods because they make you feel like a superhero? Or perhaps you eat a vegetarian diet but add in fish? If the answer is yes, you’re practicing personalized nutrition.
The Challenges of Personalized Nutrition
Still, practicing personalized nutrition is easier said than done. Polarizing and often extreme diet philosophies echo our weight-loss-obsessed and control-oriented diet culture. Judgment, condemnation, and shame are still very much a part of diet discussions. It can be difficult to break out of the mindset that dictates a specific way of eating and punishes us for “breaking” our diet.
There are other challenges, too: personalized nutrition involves factors like budget, environment, cultural background, and work schedule. In other words, it’s not just about what foods you eat and your body’s reaction; it’s also about what foods you have access to. The barriers that exist between each individual and their ability to determine and maintain their unique healthy diet vary considerably.
And then there’s the fact that our nutrition needs aren’t static. If you start training for a marathon or get pregnant, for example, you’ll need to adapt your diet to accommodate your new needs. “You may benefit from a diet for a while and then you need to switch it up,” says Singh.
The point is not to say it’s not worth it, but rather: When you start on your personalized nutrition journey, start with honesty, patience, and compassion — and an elimination diet.
What Is an Elimination Diet?
Personalized nutrition is a growing field. There are a spate of companies offering diagnostic tools that range from simple online quizzes to DNA swabs, blood tests, and gut microbiome analyses. But even companies that offer these (often expensive) services admit that the research is still nascent. There’s no one biomarker that will tell you what to eat.
That’s why we believe that the best — and cheapest — way to get started is with an elimination diet. An elimination diet involves removing all common food allergens from your diet for a period of time, then systematically add them back in, one by one, while tracking your symptoms in detail. This allows you to pinpoint your food sensitivities with a high degree of specificity. It takes time and commitment, or your results won’t be accurate. On the other hand, it’s free to do, has no risks, and can be done anytime, anywhere.
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