Tag Archives: nutrition science

Algorithm for a Healthy Diet

What can artificial intelligence do for human health? Revolutionize the way we eat, potentially. An opinion article published in the New York Times on Saturday covers the idea of personalized nutrition, made possible by super advanced algorithms and artificial intelligence (A.I.).

The article “The A.I. Diet” is written by cardiologist Eric Topol, and he begins by describing his experience as one of more than a thousand participants in a two-week health study where a sensor and a smartphone app helped track everything he did: eating, sleeping, exercise, and more.

Topol’s data was analyzed by A.I. to ultimately produce a personalized diet algorithm. His results consisted of specific foods receiving a grade, like you would on a test. It seems to me that both his experience and the study design overall highlight the importance of understanding how different foods are good or bad for different people – i.e. blueberries affect me differently than they affect someone else with a different genetic code and lifetime of environmental exposures.

Interestingly, a version of Topol’s study exists as an actual test – commercially available – but analyzes gut microbiome only, not glucose levels or eating habits (here, but it is likely other companies sell something similar).

Topol points out that the main problem is that we often perpetuate the “idea that there is one optimal diet for all people.” More or less, any specific guidance that goes beyond Michael Pollan’s famous quote (and a personal favorite of mine), “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is assuming too much about the similarities between individuals, complex and important factors like microbiome status, genetics, and environmental history. Topol: “[This assumption] contradicts the remarkable heterogeneity of human metabolism, microbiome and environment.”

“We know surprisingly little about the science of nutrition.”

Why? Topol cites difficulty with high-quality randomized trials, which are vital for nutrition science (or any type of science for that matter).

“The more understanding we have of foods and nutrition, the more complex food and nutrient interactions become,” explains nutrition scientist Kristine Polley, PhD. “Therefore, controlled and well thought-out study designs are becoming essential to interpret and translate results. High-quality randomized clinical trials provide insight into how nutrients affect human physiology and allow for accurate and critical interpretation of the data collected and the opportunity to apply these outcomes to better overall human health and quality of life.”

Another issue specific to nutrition science studies is that experiments with food habits require strict diet adherence, and there is not always an effective or easy way to ensure study participants are actually following the study’s prescribed diet.

Thirdly, where does the money come from for these types of studies? Unfortunately, often from companies that benefit from the results of the studies, increasing the chances that the results will be swayed one way or the other or misconstrued. In Topol’s words:

“The field [of nutrition science] has been undermined by the food industry, which tries to exert influence over the research it funds.”

The future of individualized/personalized nutrition depends heavily on the success of dependable nutrition studies. This data is vital for building the sophisticated A.I. technology needed to analyze the mass amounts of data to determine each individual’s specific nutritional needs. So the question that remains unanswered is, can nutrition scientists get it together (and find the funding) to obtain the needed results? I think they can.

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Do you have an “Appetite for Life?”

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.

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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?

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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.

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Images from UNC NRI and Kara Marker