Health & Wellness

Heredity and Health

Can your DNA help you get fit, lose weight and get healthy?

EAT LESS. MOVE MORE. For ages that was the standard advice for losing weight and getting healthy. But times have changed. We now know not every diet or exercise plan works for every person.

Thanks to advances in genetics, a new industry is putting an end to one-size-fits-all fitness and nutrition regimens. Yes, spitting in a tube and shipping it to a lab may unlock the secrets of your health — from your sensitivities to gluten and lactose to the exercises that will get you the best results.

“Everybody is big on high protein diets right now,” says Kevin McCoy, who runs the DNA product line at Lose it!, a popular weight loss app. “If [DNA testing] shows you you should focus on eating a low fat diet, then maybe that high-protein diet is not for you. When it comes to the fad diet of the year, you may not respond to it.”

Lose It! partnered with Helix, a DNA-testing company, last year, and together they offer embodyDNA. Here’s how it works: Helix sends you a DNA kit, and you provide a saliva sample, which is sent to a lab to be sequenced. Testing takes about six weeks, during which time you use the Lose It! app to document your food and activity. Helix sends your results to Lose It!, which uses your data to develop a report that covers everything from food sensitivities to sugar and saturated fat to exercise and vitamin D or iron levels.

Lose It! then utilizes your results to give you recommendations on diet and exercise. McCoy says over the last year, more than 10,000 people have purchased embodyDNA, and Lose It! is now studying how DNA results are helping their clientele. The company is  also in the process of expanding the support the app provides, offering food lists and recipes that reflect your particular genetic predispositions.

“What we are seeing is that the more people learn about themselves, the more successful they are,” McCoy says.

But for some people, the results are not always mind-blowing. They often confirm suspicions or predilections.

“Interestingly, it confirmed something I suspected: My mom has celiac disease and the test showed that I also carry the gene for it,” says Lacy Boggs, a Front Range–based small business owner. “It also showed that I won’t necessarily benefit from a low-fat diet, but that I’m more susceptible to sugar, which has definitely changed the way I think about my diet.”

The tests only reflect your genetic predispositions: While Boggs’ test confirmed her suspicions about being a carrier for celiac disease, she does not have the disease. McCoy says embodyDNA offers you insights into your genetic makeup. It’s up to you to take it from there.

“Embody just told me I’m predisposed to low levels of iron. That means I should go get my iron levels tested,” he says.

This type of testing has its critics. There is still a lot to be learned about genetic variations, they say, so any test’s weight-loss recommendations may not be totally correct. Plus, embodyDNA looks at a limited number of genetic markers, which may not be enough to paint a complete picture.

But that’s not stopping people — even critics — from using genetic testing to gain insight into their heredity and health. Christina Prothero, a Colorado truck driver, is joining her family to take a 23andMe test to learn about food sensitivities. All signs point to a predisposition to gluten sensitivity: Prothero’s daughter tested positive for celiac disease at a young age. Both of her siblings’ children have food allergies.

“I guess I’ll be interested if I’m a carrier [of the gene] for celiac,” she says. “But really, I just think it’s interesting to see a roadmap of how we are designed.”

Her test is in the mail. While she is curious about the result, she is also skeptical. Prothero knows environment plays a large role in health as well.

“I don’t think genetics have as much of an influence as environment,” she says. “Honestly, I really can’t think of anything (in the results) that’s gonna blow my socks off.”

What About Privacy?

“It’s a little like science fiction.” That’s what Paula Steinbacher says about the countless genetic-testing opportunities. “It’s just crazy,” says the Colorado reverend who is using Color, a company that tests for the genetic risk of cancer and heart conditions, to learn about hereditary diseases.

One reason Steinbacher chose Color was because the company guaranteed her privacy. Color gives customers the option to have their results used in research, but personal identifiers are removed from the shared information.

“I think about how someday the information could be used to preclude someone from health insurance,” she says. “I’m not a paranoid person, but that would just be horrible.”

How consumers’ results will be used by DNA testing companies—or others—is a central question to the future of DNA testing.

Most companies consider your DNA yours. You own it, and no test will change that. The rest is in the fine print: Consumers give companies permissions that allow them to test and potentially share your data. That may mean sending your DNA to an outside lab or your results to partners, like Lose It! Most often, your DNA results are de-identified, meaning your personal identifiers are not given to outside sources.

Some companies, like Ancestry and 23andMe, will ask if they can share your information with researchers or pharmaceutical companies for research purposes. You have the right to say no. You can also have your account and your information deleted. However, ask about this before taking the test (different tests have different policies).

It all comes down to reading and understanding how each company uses the information. Before you share your saliva, know how it will be used.

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