Personalized Nutrition For Health

The Periodic Table of Food Initiative will enable personalized diets that consider the different responses and requirements of individuals to food, ultimately improving health outcomes for all.

What is the Problem and Why Does it Matter?

Our heath is inextricably linked to what we eat. Poor nutrition can increase our susceptibility to disease, exacerbate symptoms, or even be the root cause. This issue is highlighted by the global burden of malnutrition, predicted to increase to one in two people by 2025, which causes poor health outcomes and an increased prevalence of disease:

  • Cardiometabolic disease: Globally, obesity has tripled since 1975, bringing an associated increase in cardiometabolic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular issues (e.g. heart failure, stroke). These cause significant health and economic burden, regardless of a country’s economic status (AHA, 2016; BMC Public Health, 2018WHO, 2020).
  • Other non-communicable diseases: Poor nutrition is also linked to an increased prevalence of inflammatory diseases (e.g. ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, asthma, allergies) and some cancers. The direct causative agents are complex and not well understood, although dysbiosis (alteration of gut microbiome) and nutrient deficiencies have been highlighted as contributing factors (Nutrients, 2017Science, 2020).
  • Infectious disease: Malnutrition increases the risk of morbidity and mortality from infectious disease, which is a major health problem, particularly among infants and children (WHO, 2010). The current COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrates the links between health and diet; being undernourished or having poor metabolic health increases the risk of worse outcomes, including hospitalization and death (Glob. Nut. Rep., 2020).

Decades of nutritional advice has had limited impact on public health. While it would be easy to blame non-compliance, generalized recommendations are flawed because they take a “one diet for all” strategy. Individuals respond differently to the same foods, so a more personalized approach has been hailed as one solution to the current global health crisis. However, research in this area is currently hindered by the lack of sophisticated understanding about the composition of food and how it links to health. The Periodic Table of Food Initiative will be key to providing the robust data needed to understand the complex factors that govern our body’s response to what we eat.

“Our food is comprised of hundreds of thousands of biochemical components, most of which are not understood or recorded. Of those that we do know about, evidence now suggests that people respond differently to them,” says Dr. Sophie Hawkesworth, Portfolio Manager of Population Health at the Wellcome Trust, whose work aims to improve global public health through research funding.

“The health effects of the food we eat are a result of many complex factors interacting with each other including our genome, microbiome, and metabolism. Personalized nutrition, sometimes referred to as precision nutrition, integrates different kinds of large sets of data to expand our understanding of the complexity and diversity of the human metabolism in response to diet. This allows a much more nuanced understanding of how individuals respond physically to food, and how this is determined by interactions between biology, their environment and behavior,” she explains.

“Personalized nutrition could revolutionize our diets for better health,” explains Dr. Lindsay Keir, Innovations Partner at the Wellcome Trust, and a Trustee of Crohn’s & Colitis UK. “A  major study in this area revealed that people respond differently to the same meal, and an array of factors, such as blood parameters, dietary habits, body measurements, physical activity, and gut microbiota can be used to predict how an individual’s blood sugar levels respond. This is important because when these levels are elevated in response to eating, it is believed to be an indicator of diabetes risk.”

She continues, “Studies have shown that personalization can foster changes in dietary behavior, leading to greater improvements in diet than universal approaches, however, much more research is needed. Evidence for personalized advice are often based on observational studies that suggest health implications by association, rather than direct cause. Also, factors that govern individualized responses are still largely unknown, although our microbiome is thought to play a leading role. Having better data about the food that we eat will greatly facilitate research on the mechanisms that underpin diet-disease connections and may also reveal new prevention or treatment opportunities.”

Proposed Solution: A Periodic Table of Food

Research questions that endeavor to understand how individuals respond to diets are limited by the lack of understanding of the detailed composition of our food. Currently only a fraction of the total component parts of a relatively small number of foods have been recorded and the analytical methods used to categorize these components vary, which reduces the reliability and comparability of the data. Having this level of information would enable researchers to understand in much more detail how individuals respond to dietary components, including the scale and potential causes of variability. This knowledge is crucial for scaling out personalized nutrition and increasing its impact.

The Periodic Table of Food Initiative is a global effort to greatly expand our understanding of the biochemical components of our food. The initiative will create standardized kits and methods that will allow researchers to easily categorize the thousands of compounds found in foods, culminating in a large set of data housed in a publicly accessible database. This data will allow diet to be related to health outcomes with greater confidence and further, guide evidence-based dietary advice so we can move towards a personalized system that mitigates and ultimately helps to prevent disease.

What is the Potential Impact?

Health and Nutrition:

  • Reducing non-communicable diseases. Diets personalized to consider an individual’s response to food, by using information enabled by the Periodic Table of Food Initiative, are more likely to succeed in reducing the prevalence of dietary-related diseases (BMJ, 2018)
  • Providing greater resistance against infectious disease. Reducing the prevalence of malnourishment through personalized diets will in turn bolster resistance to infectious diseases. This will benefit regions where poor nutrition and frequent infection leads to a vicious cycle of worsening nutritional status and increasing susceptibility to infections like diarrhea (Matern. Child Nutr., 2016). The global COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for better nutritional health to reduce the impact of future pandemics (Glob. Nut. Rep., 2020).
  • Advancing nutritional interventions. Knowing the nutritional composition of foods will help us understand the therapeutic potential of nutritional interventions. As this knowledge grows, diets can be personalized to compliment pharmaceutical therapies towards a range of diseases as well as exclude any aggravating components (J Pediatr. Gastr. Nutr., 2019).
  • Promoting healthy microbiomes. Gut microbiota utilize and produce micronutrients, which in turn have an influence on our metabolic, hormonal and neurological processes in ways that are not fully understood (Nut. Rev., 2020). A better appreciation of the components in food that are utilized by gut bacteria and converted to bioactive substances that affect our health, will help us to elucidate what constitutes a “healthy” gut.
  • Personalizing diets for ages and stages. As understanding around our specific nutritional needs at different ages and stages grows, data from the Periodic Table of Food Initiative can be used to personalize diets towards optimal growth, development, and overall health.

Sustainability:

  • Promoting nutritious diets from local and available foods. Personalized nutrition should avoid the assumption of an equitable access to a range of nutritious foods. By profiling local and available food composition, diets can be personalized to consider availability in specific regions, as well as personal and cultural preferences, to improve health outcomes for all.
  • Guiding nutritious diets from sustainable sources. The sustainable production of food is not only increasingly important to consumers but will be needed to feed the growing global population. Personalizing diets to incorporate nutritious foods from sustainable sources will help to reduce the environmental impact of current unsustainable food systems.

Economic Opportunities

  • Increasing overall economic benefit. A population that thrives on a healthy diet reduces the economic burden of diet-related diseases. One study estimates the benefits of healthy eating in the United States to be $114.5 billion per year in medical savings, increased productivity, and the value of prolonged life (Curr. Obes. Rep., 2013).
  • Catalyzing technological innovation. Building on current technological advancement in analytics, software and hardware, innovative technology, such as mobile apps and wearable devices, can be devised and use data from the Periodic Table of Food Initiative to help guide personalized nutritious diets that improve our health and consider personal requirements (e.g. athletic performance, conception and pregnancy).

Hawkesworth believes the Periodic Table of Food Initiative will be extremely important at addressing non-communicable diseases in low to middle income countries. “For regions facing a growing burden of metabolic diseases against a background of intergenerational malnutrition and infectious diseases, personalized nutrition offers the potential to transform the understanding of diet-disease interactions and to develop multifaceted interventions that can be targeted towards different populations and life stages.”