Personalised nutrition, how does it work?

Friday, 06 September, 2019

Personalised nutrition, how does it work?

Wearable technologies have inspired more proactive approaches to health and wellbeing — allowing people to track and manage their physical activity, weight, sleep, blood pressure and diet. However, personalised nutrition has yet to be fully addressed.

While it’s widely understood that a ‘clean’ diet and frequent exercise can lead to weight loss and better health, a one-size-fits-all approach may not work for everybody.  

For example, some people may need more calcium, while others may need to up their protein intake. Each body is different and an in-depth analysis can provide a clearer picture of what they need to do to lose weight and/or improve their overall health and wellbeing. We take a look.

How does personalised nutrition work?

According to Chief Founder and Director of the Expert Nutraceutical Advocacy Council (ENAC), Sandeep Gupta, we are entering an age where science and technology can help identify which foods can best help us manage our weight and overall health. 

“Not long ago, we believed our genetic make-up was predetermined and a biological reality,” Gupta said.

“The emergence of epigenetics, which is the study of mechanisms that switch genes on and off, has shed light on the fact that our genes are fluid and can be shaped by various internal and external factors.”

Personalised nutrition companies collect and analyse biodata — such as height, weight, DNA, blood nutrient levels and gut microbiome composition — and customise nutrition plans that help people meet their health goals, be it weight management or disease prevention.

Europe and the United States are at the forefront of personalised nutrition; however, it is also growing in Asia, with developed countries such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore seeing most activity.

Some examples in Asia include Singapore’s Imagene Labs, which formulates supplements and fitness solutions based on DNA; and Nestlé Japan’s partnership with Japan-based DNA labs Genesis Healthcare and Halmek Ventures, designed to provide personalised nutrition advice for senior citizens. The partnership has garnered over 100,000 participants since its announcement in May last year.

Asia’s less developed countries are yet to join the trend due to the high costs of personalised nutrition programs, where fees can run into the hundreds or even thousands, Lux Research analyst Thomas Hayes said.

Personalised nutrition’s purpose and challenges

Disease prevention is a key aim of personalised nutrition. Type 2 diabetes, which can be prevented with improved diet, is one disease Hayes hopes personalised nutrition will help eliminate.

Diabetes (types 1 and 2) affects nearly half a billion people around the world and is estimated to almost AU$1.5 trillion (US$1 trillion) globally, per year, the bulk of which goes to managing complications arising from diabetes, rather than treating the disease itself, according to Hayes.

“The combination of increasing disease prevalence and increasing per capita cost signals that new solutions are needed to supplement, or replace, traditional diabetes prevention and management tools,” he explained.

Personalised nutrition can help on the prevention front by uncovering genetic qualities of those who are predisposed to developing diabetes, Hayes said.

“As such, we see genetics being a necessary data input in forming personalised nutrition recommendations and products for diabetes prevention,” he added.

But key challenges in its mainstream adoption remain — there needs to be more scientifically backed evidence on what works and what does not. That will also justify the higher costs involved in customising nutrition plans, Hayes said.

Gupta agrees with Hayes.

“It can be challenging to design effective and efficient personalised nutrition services for different individuals and getting the technology in sync with parameters like individual dietary preferences, age group, health conditions and so on. Doing this is costly and companies may face growth constraints as a result,” Gupta said.

Furthermore, the data needs to be extra secure to ensure it doesn’t end up in the wrong hands, Gupta said.

To resolve these issues, Hayes recommended that personalised nutrition start-ups partner with large corporations to offset the high costs of research and customisation.

“A personalised nutrition start-up can approach a large corporation pitching it as a preventative tool for employees. Corporations can offset costs and offer it as part of healthcare benefits. Insurers can also work with employers to cover the cost of personalised nutrition programmes,” he said.

Gupta and Hayes will be speaking on personalised nutrition at this year’s Vitafoods Asia conference on 25 September in Singapore. The conference is focused on shaping the food industry for optimal health through science and innovation.

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