The University of North Carolina Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) hosts regular events as a part of a program they call “Appetite for Life.” It’s an initiative to “unlock the promise of personalized nutrition for proactive health management.” In other words, their mission is to show people how to eat for their health, specific to individual genetics and environmental experiences.
The speaker at the event on September 13 is Steven Zeisel, MD, PhD, and Director of the NRI. Zeisel is world-renowned, a pioneer in the field of personalized nutrition. A nutrient you’ve probably heard of, called choline, is essential for human health, especially concerning pregnant women, and Zeisel is the scientist credited with this discovery.
“I’m not going to tell you what to eat today,” Zeisel says as he begins his talk. Tonight’s event is called “Genetics and Health: Your nutrition needs are as unique as you are,” and the venue, local eatery Restaurant 46, is packed with members of the local community and employees from the neighboring North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC), a 350-acre research center located in Kannapolis, North Carolina.
Zeisel goes on to describe the true meaning of personalized, or precision, medicine and the past, current, and future studies the NRI has in place to make personalized medicine a reality for everyday people concerned with their health.
“Diet can be changed to bypass nutrient deficiencies depicted by the genetic code,” Zeisel goes on. He starts by breaking down the specifics of nutrition science, starting with genetics. He describes single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), common genetic variation that occurs uniquely in all humans, as “spelling errors” in the DNA. Considering that a majority of the audience have a limited understanding of current genetics, Zeisel presents his description of SNPs in an accurate yet simplified manner. After all, what’s the point of talking about bringing personalized medicine to the public if the lay people can’t understand what you’re talking about?
Zeisel and his colleagues at the NRI are preparing for the future of genetic testing, a technology they predict as being able to sequence an individual’s genetic code to provide a complete record of specific “spelling errors” in the DNA that might make the individual at risk for certain nutrient deficiencies. Being aware of nutrient deficiencies would then allow the individual to change their diet to eat more or less of a certain type of food.
There are companies that exist now, like 23andMe, that can provide genetic information from a DNA sample. However, the product a 23andMe customer gets in return for their money and a cheek swab is just pages and pages of combinations of “AGTC” that’s essentially meaningless unless the customer also happens to be an expert in nutrigenetics with a lot of free time.
Zeisel goes on to talk about choline, folate, and other studies from the NRI and other institutions concerned about health and nutrition. He leaves plenty of time for community members to ask their own questions, many about their health and the health of their loved ones.
The NRI’s story is far from over, but after a while questions subside. For now, people head home with a new perspective on individualized nutrition. The next Appetite for Life event is now something to look forward to, a talk by NRI scientist Stephen Hursting on October 18.
Images from UNC NRI and Kara Marker