What Is Precision Nutrition?

woman with tape measure and open refrigerator

In several of my last newsletters, I have discussed the concept of genes determining and directing how effectively your body converts and uses the omega-3s and other nutrients that enter your body. This emerging area of research is called precision nutrition, and it’s an exciting new field that holds great promise for all of us.

Think about all the diseases that rob us of our independence as we age, such as heart attacks, strokes, dementia, diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers. The truth is, it isn’t age that drives those diseases. In most cases, it’s inflammation. Some individuals and populations or ethnic groups have more inflammation than others, not because they eat worse diets, but, in large part, due to their particular versions of genes that are interacting very badly with the highly inflammatory modern Western diet. As a result, they get inflammation and resulting inflammatory diseases more often, earlier, and more severely, than others.

Inflammation isn’t all bad. It’s a necessary part of the healing process. It cleans up damaged tissues, fights infections, and makes repairs. The heat, swelling, and pain from cutting your finger, and the fever, malaise, and headache from the flu, are side effects of inflammation doing its job. When healing is complete, the inflammation is supposed to resolve and turn itself off .

But our diet, and especially our diet combined with pro-inflammatory versions of our genes, prime the body to spark an inflammatory response inappropriately, then fails to shut it off, as though the “on” switch is stuck. The result: out-of-control inflammation and a setup for those “age-related” inflammatory illnesses.

The foods that get prime shelf space in modern grocery stores are a big part of the problem. They’re full of simple sugars (like sucrose and high fructose corn syrup), omega-6 fatty acids (mainly in the form of vegetable-based oils), salt, and other preservatives—all of which promote inflammation, diabetes, and heart disease.

Enter Precision Nutrition

Let’s look specifically at inflammation resulting from ingesting too many omega-6 fatty acids. To dampen this, we need the cooling effect of omega-3 fatty acids. This is where genetics and precision nutrition come into play.

Sources of cooling omega-3s are pretty limited to oily cold-water fish, fish oil supplements, and certain plants that grow in the ocean, like algae and seaweed. Other foods contain a precursor of the cooling omega-3s, but that only helps if our body can convert that precursor plant form to the active form. If not, then we don’t get the primary anti-inflammatory benefits.

(For more on sources of cooling (anti-inflammatory) omega-3s, download this guide.)

Thanks to our genetic makeup, some of us have all the biochemical tools needed to make that conversion, some have only some of the tools required, and some have none.

Studies are beginning to examine who has what, and thus far it appears that if your family tree includes African ancestry, you are likely to be able to make that anti-inflammatory conversion of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids (found in flax seed oil and chia) efficiently. Now that is good news, but the bad news is that if you eat primarily plant-based omega-6 fatty acids (found in cooking oils), you also make much higher levels of pro-inflammatory molecules. So the right balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids are particularly important.

Having white European ancestry means about a 46 percent chance of being an efficient converter of plant-based omega-3s to active forms (not that great). However, there is also a lower chance that you will efficiently make destructive, inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids from omega-6 fatty acids found primarily in cooking oils. Where other ethnic groups fall on this issue remains to be worked out. There are now several examples of ancestral-based metabolism for several key nutrients, including salt and milk.

Being an inefficient converter or a non-converter can have serious consequences and can cause what is recognized as health disparities among different racial and ethnic groups. A recent study from the US Centers For Disease Control (CDC) found that, of the four leading causes of death in the US between 1999 and 2010, 22 percent more African Americans than Caucasians died of malignant cancer, 19 percent more from heart attacks, 27 percent more from other heart diseases, and 44 percent more from strokes. Diabetes was more than twice as common in African Americans, and high blood pressure almost three times more common.

What Can We Do?

With regard to fatty acids, until science finds a reliable, affordable test to determine our individual genetic relationship with food, we should presume that everyone needs omega-3s found in fatty fish and fish oil supplements until proven otherwise. It’s just foolhardy to gamble. Everybody, and especially those with African ancestry, should be very careful with omega-6-rich foods, as the initial research indicates that when these populations consume a modern Western diet, they make more of the pro-inflammatory omega-6 products that can drive devastating human diseases. As research continues, we’ll learn more.

In the meantime, here’s what you can do:

  • Ask your physician to have your blood tested for inflammatory markers such as hs-CRP or IL-6. If either is high, your body may be excessively inflamed.
  • To find out if your diet is making fatty acids that promote inflammation, you can get your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio tested with the Vital Omega 3 and 6 HUFA Test™.
  • Cut way back on omega-6s by reducing or eliminating processed foods and vegetable oils in your grocery cart. Replace these oils with much healthier choices such as olive oil.
  • Increase intake of foods rich in omega-3 precursors in foods like flax and chia.
  • Omnivores should eat more oily cold-water fish (at least twice a week) and take a daily fish oil supplement.
  • Vegetarians and vegans should take a daily supplement that contains the already-converted omega-3s (EPA/DHA).

As the field of Precision Nutrition develops, we will know more about the foods that, according to our individual genetic makeup, will serve us best.

About Author

Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews is the President of Gene Smart and the leader of our Gene Smart team. His mission is to provide supplements to help you control your inflammation, your weight, and your life, based on the latest scientific information.

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