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The latest study of how nutrition changes the way our genes behave has unlocked the secret to individual weight loss, says Sea Point dietician and researcher Yael Joffe. By Jill Bader
A unique diet intended just for you? There must be a catch. How is it possible to know exactly what foods you need to eat to give you the optimal advantage? What type of exercise will best help you shed those stubborn kilos you've been trying to get rid of forever? The answer lies in your one-of-a-kind DNA.
When it comes to dieting we are all accustomed to being asked the same old questions about our family history. You know the drill: Any diabetes, heart problems, obesity, cholesterol, cancer? "For decades we've based diet plans on lifestyles and eating habits, “says Yael Joffe."But until now, only part of the information from the family history quiz has been used to recommend an appropriate diet and exercise plan because we've known little about how our genes contribute to the body's metabolism and its ability to maintain optimal weight."
Yael, who has always favoured the research side of her profession, was working in London about a decade ago when researchers were mapping the human genome. She was approached by a start-up genetics company in the UK which envisaged the exciting future the sequencing of the genome would herald. At the time there were few - if any - dieticians experienced in the field of nutrigenomics, which is the study of the science of nutrition and how it interacts with genetics and impacts your health. Since then she has been part of the remarkable growth of the field of nutrigenomics. She also co-wrote the book It's not just your genes, which firmly established her as a world leader in the field and is also currently completing her PhD in Nutrigenomics at UCT.
The outcome of extensive scientific research over the past 10 years is personalised nutrition. Yael uses the analogy of electrical circuitry to explain the body's nutrigenomic workings. "Each of us has switches (genes) that govern how our body responds to injury, inflammation, obesity, exercise and our environment," she says. "The trick is to get those switches to click on and off at the right time." Some of those switches are switched on and off by nutrients in our diet; so by understanding how our bodies work and how diet influences these processes, we can personalise diet and exercise to achieve optimal health and weight loss. "Human beings' genetic make-up is 99.9 per cent the same, but the remaining 0.1 per cent is what makes us all different and makes us respond differently to different foods and exercise regimes. Now we understand their unique responsiveness and tailor a programme accordingly," she says.
While there are hundreds of genes involved in obesity and weight management, Yael and Dr Daniel Meyersfeld have identified eight genes in the body's genetic make-up that have been found conclusively to be linked to weight loss or weight-loss resistance. One gene, for example, influences how much fat a person's body absorbs from their diet. The other genes influence metabolic rate, how different individuals respond to a high carbohydrate diet, and just how much exercise is required to optimise weight loss. So how does the process work? The DNA Diet kit, available from DNAIysis (www.dnadiet.co.za), contains a questionnaire, a consent form and clear instructions on how to take your DNA swab. Once completed, all the items need to be returned in the addressed envelope.
'The beauty of finding out one's DNA results, which remain constant throughout a person's life, is that it is a once-off, once-in-a-lifetime assessment' can better understand how this genetic variation influences the way our bodies work, and we can identify the optimal diet and exercise schedule to achieve the very best weight-loss results in each individual," Yael explains. "It is all about understanding a person's unique responsiveness to diet and exercise. Previously, diets were based on general statistics like reducing our intake of fat to less than 30 per cent, burning up more kilojoules than we take in, and so on. Now it's no longer a case of trial and error; we can look at the individual and provided. Two weeks later a PDF report that utilises the best research available today will be emailed to you. It identifies the optimal diet plan for you, as well as how much and what type of exercise you require, all based on your genetic results. It also includes a diet plan to get you started. You can then adjust your exercise and eating habits, with or without the assistance of a dietician, to maximise your chances of losing weight.
Sound too easy? Yael gives the example of a friend whose experience of discovering her DNA Diet results was life-changing. Meredith was a long distance-runner who actually gained weight during her vigorous training for the Comrades Marathon. "As a physiotherapist she was conscientious about health and weight and really peeved by her weight gain," says Yael. Doing the DNA test revealed that Meredith had an uncommon gene profile (present in less than 10 per cent of the population) which made it more difficult for her to lose weight while consuming a high carbohydrate diet -no matter how much she exercised! By reducing her carb intake from around 70 per cent to 40 per cent, she lost 2.6kgs in the first week. The biggest revelation, however, came with changing her exercise habits. "Before, she'd always chosen running as her exercise of choice, believing she was doing the best possible exercise for weight loss. But when she started focusing more on the pleasure of exercise, mixing up her running with yoga, hiking and Pilates, she found it easier to manage her weight and enjoyed exercising much more."
"Previously, both dieticians and clients felt frustrated because not all diet programmes worked effectively for everyone," says Yael. "With personalised nutrition, people are much more motivated to make changes in their diet and exercise plan because they know exactly what they need to do to optimise their weight loss," she concludes. •
The DNA Diet kit* (R1 350) is available online at www.dnadiet.co.za. Your kit will be sent via courier to you overnight. Once your swab has been analysed, your DNA Diet report will be emailed to you. It will include the analysis of your genetic profile, as well as an eating and exercise plan to optimise your weight loss.
A second product, DNA Health (R2 350), tests for 24 genes involved in the following biological processes: cholesterol regulation, bone health, vitamin B metabolism, inflammation, detoxification, antioxidant status and insulin sensitivity. The results provide unique information to guide personalised dietary recommendations as well as necessary supplementation for optimal health and disease prevention.
DNA Diet and DNA Health are also available from doctors and dieticians. A list of accredited practitioners is available at www.dnadiet.co.za.