Expert nutritionist and health coach Jared Koch isn’t immune to the challenges, philosophies and endlessly conflicting research about what to eat, just like the rest of us. His impetus for becoming vegan years ago wasn’t just for ethical and environmental reasons. It was also because at the time so many scientific studies focused on negative health consequences of eating too much red meat and saturated fat. It was seemingly, increasingly evident to him that “healthy eating meant being vegan.”
He hoped that his life-long chronic digestive issues would dissipate and the energy boost that an all plant diet promised would one day kick in. “I felt and looked terrible,” says Jared Koch, the founder and CEO of Clean Plates. He had made what he believed was a therapeutic dietary change which should have, according to studies and research, been destined to bring him total wellness. Instead, He got worse. Educated and thoughtful about these very issues, Jared did not approach his dietary change like a quick fix. He stuck to it. He was often sick, and the longer he maintained his new diet, the more fatigued he felt. Worst of all perhaps, his digestive issues persisted. This lasted almost three years.
Bio-individuality and the Art and Science of Personalized Nutrition
Jared instituted an overarching, new approach to his diet. Since humans are bio-individual, meaning that we each have unique nutritional needs to be healthy, there cannot be one single definition of what is a “healthy diet.” Differences in our anatomy, metabolism, body composition, cellular structure, and genetics — big and small — create varied nutritional needs, unique to you and only you. Personalized nutrition is the path by which you learn your bio-individual needs, empowering you with the knowledge, ability, and tools to make the best decision about how to eat for your body. This approach changed Jared’s life. It changed his clients’ lives. It can change yours too.
Jared listened to his own body. Really listened. He monitored many factors which contributed to his well being and he created his own food rules for himself, to great success and increased pleasure. This personalized nutrition program was and remains, no easy process, but it can be life changing.
Personalized nutrition, by definition, means tailoring and customizing food and much more in accordance with medical and biological metrics like blood pressure reduction or BMI. We, humans, are multifaceted, social beings with many differences, so Jared’s approach requires us to consider not just bio-individuality but also factors like budget, personal taste, cultural background, daily work schedules, and food access.
The barriers that exist between each individual and their ability to determine and maintain their unique healthy diet vary considerably by circumstance. It’s not only about what foods you eat and your body’s reaction. It’s also about what food you have access to.
As we work as a society to stop targeting and correcting gross inequities in our food system, that grievously affect younger POC and lower-income folks disproportionately, each person has to start to define and act upon what is “healthy” for their body and their lives. Personalized nutrition mandates real time, real world solutions for you, by you, just as you are.
Your Individual Needs & The Food You Eat
According to the American Nutrition Association, Personalized nutrition is a way of eating that focuses on the understanding that human individuality is what drives nutrition strategies that prevent, manage, and treat disease and optimize health. This means not subscribing to any one food philosophy, whether it be the low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet or the animal product-free vegan diet. Instead, you subscribe to only one food philosophy — the one you create for yourself based upon how you react and feel after eating.
This definition might conjure up images of advanced analyses or unaffordable nutrigenomic testing. But the truth is that personalized nutrition is pretty simple — and you’re probably already doing it to some degree in your own life. Every day, you make decisions about what to eat and you may already notice how those decisions affect your body. The knowledge you gain from observing yourself and noticing what feels good to you is what personalized nutrition is really about.
“There is a basic misunderstanding about what healthy is,” said Dr. Marvin Singh, an integrative gastroenterologist. He regularly sees patients who are eating certain foods because of something they read or a story of a friend of a friend who had great success with a particular diet. “People fall into these traps of thinking they have to eat a certain way,” says Dr. Singh. But the truth is, “there are a lot of nuances to health and nutrition and if you don’t understand that, you’re not doing yourself a service,” he continues. One of Dr. Singh’s goals with his patients is to get them to start looking at it from an individual, clinical point of view. In other words, he practices personalized nutrition.
Creating Your Food Philosophy
Creating your own food philosophy is easier said than done. Polarizing and often extreme diet philosophies echo our weight-loss-obsessed and control-oriented diet culture. Judgment, condemnation and shame are still very much a part of diet discussions, and older, passe, themes still tend to creep into even the most modern, wellness-oriented ideologies.
Diets are therapies. When we pigeonhole ourselves into a specific way of eating without leaving room for personalization or customization, for tailoring the information out there to our unique and specific needs, it backfires. As Jared explains: “You not only miss out on healthy foods you’d enjoy eating, you become so focused on not ‘breaking’ your diet that your health slides down on the priority list.”
And it’s not just your health and well-being that slides to the bottom of the priority list, either. Enjoyment does too. As Loneke T. Blackman Carr, Ph.D., R.D., an assistant professor of community and public health nutrition at the University of Connecticut explains: “Food serves a purpose that is inclusive of nutrition but not exclusive of joy, family, and tradition.” If the idea that celebrating and enjoying food still brings us pause, it shows that we haven’t come quite as far as we want to believe.
Decreasing Food Confusion
Labeling foods either “healthy” or “not healthy” does not allow for nuances that are vital to personalized health. Think about it: Foods like red meat, grains, and saturated fat have developed such a stigma that their public image may never recover, even if the science redeems them. To add fuel to the fire, nutrition studies often report conflicting results. One day eggs are nature’s greatest superfood — and the next day they’ll give you heart disease.
As Dr. Carr explains: “There’s so much information and misinformation and it’s coming from so many different sources. I totally understand where that confusion comes from.” Many people are so paralyzed by conflicting nutrition information and dueling opinions that they have no idea what to eat. As a result, people who are motivated to make healthy lifestyle changes, but don’t know which route to take, struggle to find a sustainable way to do so.”
Nutrition research is perhaps the most vital piece of the academic knowledge, but applying it to you, a single person’s body is the necessity. For example, one study from Kings College in London showed that individuals have significantly different physiological responses — such as blood sugar spikes and increases in blood fat levels — after eating various kinds of foods.
“Diet is a very personalized thing; food sensitivities, microbiome issues, and genetics are all involved and really influences what you should eat,” says Dr. Singh. When it comes to our DNA, our genes can affect our nutritional needs in more than subtle ways. “Some people have a genetic mutation in a gene that puts them at a greater risk for hypertension and heart disease if they eat more than 1500 mg of salt per day.” According to Dr. Singh, people without that gene can have 2400 mg a day without negative health consequences. The same is true for Vitamin C, caffeine, and certain B vitamins. Our dietary needs exist on a genetic basis.
So while there are some food rules that apply to everyone — “Fruits and veggies above all, whole grains, lean proteins, and some healthy fats are foods that are good for everyone,” says Dr. Carr — some nutrition questions lead you to a dead end. For example, when it comes to the “Are eggs healthy or not” debate, “There might not actually be an answer,” says Dr. Carr.
It turns out that we’ve been asking the wrong questions entirely. Instead of debating which diet is the best and which is the worst, we should all individually be asking a single prevailing question: What foods are right for me?
At first, answering the questions “What foods are better for me, or worse for me?” might seem impossible. There’s still a lot society needs to learn about food and culture, behavior, and the science of nutrigenomics — the study of how food influences our DNA and vice versa.
Personalized Nutrition Is Already All Around Us
When you start asking yourself “What foods are better for me?” you’ll most likely find that you’ve already been answering it in bits and pieces for years. Do you avoid certain foods because they make you bloated, give you reflux, or make you feel tired? Do you continue to eat certain foods because they make you feel like a superhero? Do you eat a vegetarian diet but add in fish because it makes you feel so great? If the answer is yes to any of these, then there you go — you’re already your own nutrition expert.
Personalized nutrition is already all around us in some ways. Consider the supplement world. Supplements personalize our nutrients and should be therapeutic. As Nick Bitz, N.D., the Chief Scientific Officer at Youtheory® explains, “Dietary supplements are anything but one-size-fits-all. Supplements can and should be tailored to an individual’s unique needs. Otherwise, you’re treating the disease and not the person.”
Clinicians don’t suggest the same supplement routine for every patient. In fact, even two patients with the same health condition might be prescribed an entirely different supplement routine. “Every botanical has unique energetic properties and the key is to choose the right botanical that not only targets a specific health goal but also brings balance to someone’s body-type. Not every remedy is appropriate for every person,” says Bitz. If you’re treating a health condition, it’s always wise to work with a professional to develop a supplement routine, but if you’re just looking to support overall health, companies like Care/Of will provide you personalized vitamin packs based on factors like your health history, your age, and your gender.
You can also find evidence of personalized nutrition in companies like Habit, which creates personalized nutrition plans, and ZOE, a massive collaboration between scientists and volunteers that combine large-scale data to predict personal nutrition responses to any meal. Companies like Pure Genomics will identify common genetic variations that are clinically relevant and nutritionally applicable and BIOHM will provide nutrition recommendations based on specific gut microbiome biomarkers.
The Elimination Diet: Your First and Most Important Diagnostic Tool
The elimination diet is the most foolproof personalized nutrition diagnostic tool at our disposal. With an elimination diet, you remove all common food allergens from your diet for a period of time, and then systematically add them back in, one by one, while tracking your symptoms in detail. This allows you to pinpoint your food sensitivities with a high degree of specificity. The elimination diet isn’t for the faint of heart; to do it right takes time and you must be diligent, or your results won’t be accurate. The good news is that it’s free to do, has no risks, and can be done anytime, anywhere. Often if you do it with the help of a trained professional, it’s fairly expensive.
For Jared, it was really the elimination diet that helped him finally ditch food labels, restrictive diets, and all-or-nothing eating plans. Plus, according to him, “an elimination diet isn’t as difficult as it sounds if you have the proper guidance and structure.”
After his elimination diet phase, Jared found that he felt substantially better eating red meat and noticeably worse eating sugar, gluten-containing grains, and surprisingly, too many greens. So today, he makes his own food rules based on that personal knowledge and he’s never felt better. An elimination diet is a life-altering tool we all have at our disposal to change the way we eat and live.
Although, hopefully, personalized nutrition will one day involve nothing more than a single, quick test that tells us which foods are better for our unique bodies and which foods should be minimized or avoided to achieve optimal health, as of right now we don’t have that. Currently, outside of allergy testing, figuring out what works best requires us to be perpetual students of our own bodies. That is why the elimination diet has remained such a helpful diagnostic tool.
Make Your Own Food Rules and Modify as Your Life and Body Changes
After settling on an eating plan that feels right today, you will always be on the lookout for changes that you may need. Our nutritional requirements change throughout our lives. If you start training for a marathon or get pregnant, for example, you’ll need to adapt your diet to accommodate your new needs. “You may benefit from a diet for a while and then you need to switch it up,” says Dr. Singh.
Personalized nutrition is about listening to your body and always prioritizing how you feel over hard-and-fast rules, restrictive labels, and even the latest, splashiest headlines and studies. At the end of the day, you’re the only one living in your body. And when it comes to your personal nutrition journey, the best place to start is with honesty, patience, and compassion. Only then can you cultivate a way of eating that gives you the knowledge and tools to meet your body exactly where it’s at and undertake the journey into total food freedom.
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