Personalized Nutrition Starts Here: 10 Key Questions to Consider ASAP
Most of us have heard the phrase “personalized medicine” by now, and we’re excited to think about how it will continue to impact healthcare today and in the future. From medications and interventions specifically tailored to your needs based on genetic and biomarker testing to supplement recommendations that’ll optimize how your genes are expressed, modern medicine is making major strides. The good news is that the same is true when it comes to their field of personalized nutrition.
There’s No One-Size-Fits-All
We know more now than ever before about how we can use food to optimize health based specifically on each individual’s complex (and highly specific!) needs. As a dietitian, one of my top goals is to help the people I work with create personalized nutrition plans, because I know the number one reason most diets fail is because they’re generalized. They don’t take into account the complex needs of each individual person.
Sadly, most public health recommendations from organizations like the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, and even the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dietary Guidelines don’t offer personalized advice. Sure, they tell us to increase the amount of vegetables and fruit we eat, limit refined grains, and decrease alcohol intake, but this advice often falls short because it doesn’t consider the biochemical uniqueness of each individual person. Case in point: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans reports that 59% of the US population adheres to its healthy eating principles—yet 60% of adults have one or more diet-related chronic diseases.
While healthy eating recommendations based on the latest research are important, it’s just as crucial to consider the unique biochemical makeup of each individual person in order to improve health outcomes. In the past six years of working as a dietitian with more than 4,000 clients, I have developed a roadmap for gathering data, understanding symptoms and health goals, and learning about you as a person so I can develop a highly personalized health protocol. Not doing this is a little like expecting everyone to be a round peg that fits in a round hole. Many of us are ovals, squares, stars, and other shapes that can’t (and shouldn’t!) be morphed to fit in that round hole.
There is no one-size-fits-all recommendations that will get everyone results—which is why a personalized approach to nutrition is key.
How to Not Personalize Your Diet
First, I think it’s important to give you a few examples of how not to personalize your diet:
- Following a generic diet that worked for your favorite social media influencer
- Reading a diet book, following the advice 100% and believing that you will have the same results as the testimonials shared in the book
- Taking supplements because an influencer on social media swears by them.
- Thinking that intermittent fasting is beneficial for everyone and giving it a whirl without really understanding what it is and how it works
- Going keto and expecting to lose 15 lbs and feel amazing since your neighbor had that experience
- Forgetting to consider a history of food shame/disordered eating and diving into the next restrictive diet
- Thinking that every person with a specific diagnosis has the same nutritional needs
The Optimal Personalized Approach
The optimal way to eat is to personalize nutrition advice so it works for you. To do this, you want to make sure you’re:
- Getting adequate nutrition to support your biological systems
- Keeping food sensitivities, allergies, or negative reactions in mind when choosing what to eat
- Considering your taste preferences, and loading your diet up with a large variety of foods that you genuinely love
- Eating in a way that supports your mental health, which means things like accounting for religious or cultural practices and creating a sense of joy and connection in your life.
While you can track labs and data on your own, working with a Registered Dietitian that is trained in personalization and functional medicine is key when it comes to understanding how to optimize your diet for you. In the meantime, here are 10 questions to ask yourself that’ll help you personalize any nutrition advice:
1. What’s your Relationship with Food?
This is a topic that is all too often overlooked by healthcare practitioners (even doctors!) when discussing nutrition advice. If you have a history of disordered eating or an eating disorder, you do not want to pursue a diet that triggers that disorder. Even if you do not have a history of disordered eating, it’s important to check in with yourself and ask: Do my current eating habits support a healthy and balanced food relationship without triggering anxiety, obsessiveness, or negative emotions? The goal is to find an approach that supports your health needs and helps you feel your best while also supporting your mental health and wellbeing.
2. What’s your Gender?
Men and women are almost 99% identical in their DNA—but our nutrient needs still vary greatly, including but not limited to total energy, protein, dietary fiber, iron, vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, and zinc. Gender also influences hormone levels and risk of autoimmune diseases. Women are more susceptible to hormonal fluctuations and have an increased prevalence of thyroid disorders and autoimmune diseases. For example, female hormonal variation may partially explain why some women do not respond as positively to long intermittent fasting windows as men. What’s more, females who are menstruating have changing nutrient needs at every stage of their cycle.
3. How Old Are You, and What Life Cycle Are You In?
Once you’re able to find a way of eating that works best for you, it’s important to remain open to the idea that things will need to change as you age. What works for you in your 20s will likely not work the same way in your 40s or 60s. Similarly, what works for you when you’re pregnant versus not, or menstruating versus post-menopausal will also be different. For example: Pregnant women have a higher need for nutrients such as folate, iron, iodine, choline and omega 3 fatty acids.
As the body ages, the nutrients that are required for optimal functionality change. After the age of 50, adults will commonly begin to experience natural changes such as lower metabolic rate or metabolism, muscle changes, increased risk of bone loss, decreased insulin sensitivity, decreased absorption of certain nutrients and hormonal changes in women. After females hit 51, their need for iron decreases substantially while need for calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 often increase.
4. What are your Health Goals?
While a common goal for most people is to get healthier and prevent future disease by being proactive versus reactive, most have more specific goals as well—like improving acid reflux or to not feel so bloated after every meal. If your health goal is to improve digestive health and we discover that you have bacterial imbalances in your gut, increasing your fiber intake may actually create more digestive symptoms. Instead, you may benefit from a short-term low FODMAP diet. If you have PCOS and insulin resistance and you’re trying to regulate your hormones, you may need to start by increasing your fiber and protein intake and add strength training to your workout regimen two times per week. Do you see how each change you make will be specific to you in addition to your overarching health goals?
5. How Often Do you Move your Body?
Your level of physical activity has a huge impact on your energy needs, amino acid needs, your muscle’s uptake of glucose, timing of meals, electrolyte needs, and so much more. The opposite is also true: Different aspects of your diet play a key role in improving your physical performance, endurance and outcomes. Optimal nutrition is required for helping you perform and recover to the best of your ability. When you have higher levels of activity, your carbohydrate needs can increase, as carbohydrates provide glycogen stores that are necessary for increasing the duration and intensity of your workouts. Your protein intake may also need to be higher in order to optimize your ability to synthesize muscle. Exercise does not give you the ability to eat whatever you want—but your activity level is important to assess because it will help us personalize your nutrition needs.
6. What are your Specific Nutrient Needs?
This is admittedly a tough one to answer on your own, but it’s a crucial question to answer if you truly want to personalize your diet and optimize your health. Your total energy needs—the calories necessary to give you the energy that you need—will vary from person to person. On an even deeper level, your need for micronutrients will also be individualized. Adequate nutrient intake and absorption are required for your body to thrive. Your gut microbiome, stomach acid levels, genetics, health conditions and prescription medications all influence the nutrients that you absorb from your diet. For example: proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) like omeprazole are associated with nutrient deficiencies such as vitamin B12, vitamin C, calcium iron and magnesium; use of metformin is associated with vitamin B12 deficiency; use of birth control has been associated with nutrient depletions such as folate, vitamins B2, B6, B12, vitamins C and E, magnesium, selenium and zinc. In short, your food and supplement needs vary from person to person—and understanding your specific nutrient needs is key. This is something we test for in my nutrition programs for that reason!
7. How Healthy (or not) is your Gut Microbiome?
You have over 100 trillion bacteria, viruses and fungi living inside your large intestine—a.k.a. your microbiome. As you can imagine, the health and composition of a person’s gut microbiome varies widely from person to person. The composition of your microbiome influences your heart health, brain health, immune system, and more. The gut microbiome also influences your blood sugar response to different foods and is a key factor in determining whether certain foods make you feel bloated or gassy. While increasing fiber intake is a great idea for some, for others this can create digestive distress unless you are able to first improve the balance of your microbes. If you don’t have bloating or GI distress, then increasing your fiber intake and the variety of foods in your diet are two key ways to support your gut daily.
8. What’s your Genetic Makeup?
Eating according to your genes rather than what you have been told you “should” eat can be a game changer for many. Nutrigenomics (nutrition + genomics) is the study of the effects of nutrients on gene expressions. Genetic polymorphisms can impact everything from your need for higher levels of folate, high levels of iron, as well as more or less zinc, vitamin D, saturated fat, and so much more—all because of gene variations you may or may not have. Knowing more about your genes can unlock a greater understanding of your individual needs. A word of warning, however: All gene testing companies are not created equal. If you’re interested in genetic testing, make sure you trust the company doing the testing, and work with a knowledgeable Registered Dietitian to make changes based on test results. Pursuing genetic testing after creating a strong and consistent foundation with nutrition and healthy lifestyle practices is key.
9. What’s your Metabolic Health Look Like?
Metabolic health is critical for improving health outcomes and longevity. This involves supporting stable blood sugar, as well as healthy lipid levels and waist circumference. While eating a low glycemic diet can be a great first place to start, the importance of personalized nutrition is critical when it comes to understanding metabolic health. A 2015 study demonstrated that foods that raise blood sugar levels vary from person to person. Another important consideration is the impact that other lifestyle factors such as sleep and movement have on each person’s blood sugar response. The key is to understand the best balance for you and to address any nutrient deficiencies that can impair blood sugar regulation. This is where Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) companies, such as Levels, can be helpful to collect your personal blood sugar data.
10. Do you Have Any Food Sensitivities, Allergies, or Reactions?
If you experience adverse symptoms from eating certain foods, you may have adverse food reactions or sensitivities or short-term aversions. For example, foods like dairy or gluten may trigger reactions like bloating, gas, and even skin reactions for some. If you’re experiencing digestive woes like these or other symptoms, it may be worth exploring which foods may not work optimally in your body. Additionally, there is a small percent of the population that has true food allergies. The top eight allergens are cow’s milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, wheat, soy and fish. Remember, the goal of figuring out if you have an adverse reaction to certain foods isn’t to label that food as healthy versus unhealthy. It’s about identifying foods that provoke adverse symptoms. Not everyone needs to eat gluten-free, dairy-free and soy-free—but having a better understanding of food reactions can help you know which foods to reduce or avoid in order to feel better.
While it may take some time to know the answers to all of these questions, understanding the power of personalized nutrition allows you to stop comparing your own eating habits with those around you. There is a lot of freedom in that!
Personalizing nutrition needs is what my team and I at BeingBrigid Functional Nutrition excel at doing. If this is something you’re interested in exploring, sign up for our My Food is Health waitlist here.