Written by: Jonine Möller, M.Sc. in Sport Science
Have you sat amongst a group of people, compared yourself to them, and thought your diets and health don’t add up? Why does it seem like some people cannot eat little enough to lose weight while others seem unable to pick up weight? Why are some people always sick while others never even get a cold?
Of course, the answer is multifactorial, but your genetics plays a role in this. Our genetic makeup influences how our bodies metabolize the different macro- and micronutrients. The macronutrients provide energy and building blocks to the body, while the micronutrients are needed for immunity and the proper functioning of the body's systems.
It is tempting to want to know which gene variants affect which metabolic pathways in which ways. Naturally, we want to understand why some people may need more or less of certain macro- or micronutrients. We can deduce that individuals have different dietary needs by observing people.
Since the body’s metabolism is very complex and integrates many pathways and systems, single gene variants cannot explain much of the variation between individuals. Having one piece of a 1000-piece puzzle does not help much with the bigger picture.
Thus, it is hard to explain metabolism differences and their effects by focusing on single genes or pathways. Instead, genetic testing is better and more accurately applied to determine the risk associated with the overall sum of all genetic variants associated with a particular condition or disease. (You can read more about gene-testing methodologies here.)
We can’t fully explain the physiological reason, but we know which genetic variants result in which nutritional need. For example, the sum of many genetic variants determines individuals’ risk for vitamin and mineral deficiencies and macronutrient needs. Genes are also significantly involved in conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and gluten and lactose intolerance.
Furthermore, your risk of developing certain diseases, such as insulin resistance, diabetes, or atherosclerosis, is significantly influenced by your genetic makeup. The risk and development of most of these non-communicable diseases and conditions involve the metabolic systems which deal with the food we eat.
For example, genetics greatly determines individuals’ hormone levels involved in metabolism. Our inherent insulin secretion and whole-body insulin sensitivity are genetically determined. The secretion and clearance of insulin alone greatly influence how much carbohydrates the body can handle before metabolic health declines.
Not only do our genes determine the metabolism of macronutrients, but also our micronutrients. Our vitamin and mineral needs are fairly established, but genetically some people are more prone to deficiencies or overloads of some nutrients than others.
For example, genes can significantly influence our likelihood of a vitamin D deficiency, while genes primarily cause iron overload (hemochromatosis). Genes are also involved in our risk for conditions such as osteoporosis, for which adequate nutrient levels are crucial in prevention.
Diet and nutritional needs are not “one-size-fits-all”. Our bodies are unique, and everything (including our metabolism) is affected by our genetic makeup. Subsequently, our nutritional needs are different. Genetic testing can give you a comprehensive overview of your nutrient needs based on how your body metabolizes them.
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