After a gluttonous Christmas one year, my husband and I looked at ourselves and decided we had to go on a diet. Things had been spiraling downward for a while. The primary factor was that I had been diagnosed with a chronic condition the year before (fibromyalgia). Pain and fatigue made cooking healthy or moving more just seem too difficult. In my husband’s case, catered meetings at work meant one too many muffins. So we went on a plant-based, nutrient-dense diet. I lost weight, about 20 lbs., and kept it off. My husband did not – even though he swore he only looked at the muffins. How does that work?
The answer lies in the fact we each have a unique physical and genetic makeup. A 2015 study investigated post-meal glucose levels in 800 individuals over the course of a week. They found significant individual variation among the participants in the blood glucose levels caused by different foods, even when they ate the exact same, standardized meals. For example, in one participant sushi caused their blood sugar to rise higher than ice cream, while another found that healthy tomatoes spiked her blood sugar.
Researchers attributed this variability to a combination of physical makeup (weight, blood pressure, etc.), lifestyle, and gut microbiome (the unique gut bacteria in our digestive tract). In fact, an algorithm based on these factors was able to accurately predict personalized post-meal glucose reactions to specific foods. Using this information, researchers designed individual nutritional recommendations that eliminated the foods that caused high glycemic reactions, which led to overall lower blood sugar levels among study participants. It is this individual variability that explains why one of your friends is trying to convince you to eat like a carnivorous caveman to lose weight (hello, Paleo), while another swears that rabbit-food veganism is a game-changer. Essentially, different people respond differently to different diets. My husband found a high protein, low(er) carb vegetarian diet worked for him. He needs high protein dairy options like greek yogurt and cottage cheese, while I don’t.
Another example of individual variability in nutrition is sensitivity to dietary cholesterol. For most of us, the liver produces 85% of our cholesterol and the rest is acquired from our dietary intake. If we eat a cholesterol-rich meal, our body responds by manufacturing less cholesterol to maintain healthy blood levels. However, for about 30% of people, their sensitivity to blood cholesterol is blunted, leading to problems regulating healthy levels. For these individuals, if they eat cholesterol-high foods, their blood cholesterol goes up because their body fails to sufficiently reduce how much cholesterol is manufactured in the liver. These people are at an increased risk of having high cholesterol.
As you might expect, research into the relationship between our individual genetic makeup and our nutrition, called nutritional genomics, is a rapidly expanding field. Lactose intolerance is one example of how genes can affect your reaction to food – certain variations of specific genes confer lactose tolerance, while other variations cause intolerance. Many researchers argue that personalized diets are the future of nutrition, rather than broad dietary recommendations or one-size-fits-all diets. However, the application of these research insights is not yet widely available to enable people to develop an individual diet based on factors like genetics, physical makeup, and the gut microbiome.
One step everyone can take to personalize their diet is to try an elimination diet, which will help to identify food intolerances and sensitivities. Food intolerance is a nonallergic reaction that causes negative bodily symptoms like digestive problems, skin irritation, and fatigue. Food intolerances can cause inflammation of the digestive lining. If one diet plan is not helpful, then consider trying another, until you find what works best for your body. Here is a list of the three best diets for fibromyalgia, according to science (vegetarian/vegan, gluten-free, and FODMAP free), as well as helpful resources to get started.
The good news is that there is one diet plan that is always good for you. What is that diet? Eating whole foods. Not necessarily raw, organic, GMO–free, or local foods (although there are lots of good reasons to choose some of those options too). Whole foods mean food as close to their natural state as possible – carrots in the earth, grapes on the vine, or fish in the sea. Real foods are not processed, refined, added to, fortified, or otherwise messed about by a food chemist. This is the one diet you can’t go wrong following.
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