What is personalised nutrition?
With a raft of conflicting information about what constitutes a ‘healthy’ diet is it time to put your trust in a nutrition app? Using technology and data, these products claim to be able to determine what is the right diet for you. Registered Nutritionist Kerry Torrens investigates
We are entering exciting times in the field of nutrition. Over recent years there’s been a real shift, driven by the idea that dietary guidelines which offer standardised advice to all, are too simplistic. Enter the concept of personalised dietary advice, where an app uses artificial intelligence to interpret data unique to you – this may be genetic information, microbial or relate to certain blood biomarkers. The result is nutrition advice specific to how your body responds to certain foods, how balanced your gut microbiome is and how your genetic profile may influence your nutrition. All of this, if acted upon, has the potential to improve your health as you age.
What is personalised nutrition?
There is no official definition, although the main goal of personalised nutrition (PN) would be to preserve or improve health using data specific to the individual. It's valuable for people with a diagnosed health condition as well as for healthy people looking to maintain their health and age well.
We’ve been benefitting from personalised diet advice for years – whether from dieticians or nutritionists. But recent advances in our understanding of how diet affects health, combined with the availability of new technology and the analytical tools that interpret and transform it to user-friendly information, has opened the way for a new kind of PN. Spearheaded by advances in diabetes management such as continuous blood glucose monitoring (CGM) systems, new technology is being applied to PN that shows the user in real time how their unique biological responses to certain foods may be exploited to improve their health.
How do personalised nutrition apps work?
The main principle behind PN apps is that generic diets don’t work because everyone’s metabolism, genetic profile and gut microbiome is unique to them, meaning we all respond to food differently. Depending on the PN programme you choose, you may be required to conduct at-home tests such as wear a CGM, check your blood fats using a finger prick test, submit stool samples to assess your gut microbiome or do a DNA swab to assess your genetic profile. Some apps require you to submit a food diary, provide information about your activity levels as well as your age, weight, height and health status.
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Although some providers involve nutritionists, most of the data is analysed and interpreted by an algorithm which then reports information back to the user via their smartphone.
How do I choose a personalised nutrition app?
Most commercial PN products use home-testing kits that are unregulated and to date have limited published evidence. Furthermore, the level of detail provided and the interpretation of your results may vary from company to company, so be sure to understand exactly what you’ll be getting before you sign up. With all this to consider, it's worth asking yourself a few questions before you make your final decision:
• What are your goals, and which features are most important to you? For example, if blood sugar management is key, look at apps that include a CGM such as the Zoe app or Veri.
• Are there any user reviews? Consider apps that have received a high rating
• Who is the app backed by? Are they healthcare professionals such as doctors, nutritionists or dieticians?
• Is the information reliable, practical and from an expert source? Is there evidence-based data to back the app’s findings and the advice given?
• Does the cost include a one-to-one consultation with a nutrition professional?
• Is the app easy to use?
• How does the company protect your personal data?
• Is the cost appropriate for your budget? While some apps may be free to download, others require a one-off payment and /or subscription. If your budget is tight, you may wish to look at products undergoing pilot testing. You will need to check your suitability to participate, but options include the eNutri app and the i-Diet app.
How much do personalised nutrition apps cost?
Typically, PN companies offer a selection of packages and payment terms. Premium packages may include a one-off price for the tests and reporting, with additional charges for access to private member communities, group coaching sessions or a one-to-one consultation.
Services range from £100 upwards, with payments being made via a subscription model, a more expensive one-off payment or a combination of the two. On average, dependent on the solution chosen and how long you wish to remain a member you might expect to pay in the region of £350.
Are personalised nutrition apps effective?
Yes, studies suggest that PN apps can be successful in initiating and supporting dietary change. For example, there is some evidence that users are more motivated to follow the advice of PN apps, with one study showing users were less likely to eat discretionary foods compared to those who were given standard dietary advice. Another study reported better pre-diabetes management using a PN app rather than following a Mediterranean-style diet; they also appear to act as effective self-monitoring tools with positive outcomes for those with chronic diseases, especially around weight-loss. And their use appears to improve short-term diet quality and increase engagement in healthy eating behaviours.
What is the downside to personalised nutrition apps?
Some of the science used by these apps, such as the relevance of your gut microbiome and your genetic profile, is still very much in its infancy – which is why some experts believe commercialisation of PN apps is premature. For example, although a genetic profile can provide useful information about how different people metabolise fats and use specific nutrients, there is still more research needed to determine how this can be interpreted within an algorithm to make sound dietary recommendations. Similarly, although our knowledge of the gut microbiome is advancing at pace, there remains no consensus of what constitutes a “normal” or “healthy” microbiome. After all, given the gut is influenced by hundreds of factors, changing just one – food – is likely to have only a limited impact on optimising health.
In order to provide a quality service, the algorithms behind these apps need to integrate data from multiple streams such as DNA profiles, blood biomarkers, gut microbiome analysis as well as lifestyle information like activity levels, sleep and meal timings. Combining all this data and arriving at scientifically sound advice, is a complex process.
What might personalised nutrition apps be able to do in the future?
Looking to the future, PN apps that offer targeted interventions and tailored recommendations may become part of routine clinical practice. However, for the foreseeable future, these apps remain accessible to the affluent few and for this reason are unlikely to make an impact on wider society and the broader public health agenda, at least in the medium term. However, we may look forward to a time when such apps improve the management of chronic conditions like diabetes and aid weight loss.
PN apps may also encourage the development of ‘smart foods’. This may include of nutraceutical foods and supplements such as prebiotic cereals to promote gut health and personalised supplement programmes to address the needs of specific vulnerable groups.
Smartphone technology has proven itself to be a useful tool for modifying and regulating behaviour – to this end they help us define our fitness and diet goals and keep us motivated; the EU funded Stance4Health project hopes to harness this functionality in order to achieve wider societal goals such as health and lifestyle sustainability.
Should I try a personalised nutrition app?
Many experts believe that our knowledge of PN continues to develop, and there is still much for us to learn in this field. That said, if you’re fed up of following the latest diet fad and you have a budget that can accommodate a PN app, then be sure to do your homework first. For the rest of us following existing guidelines on fruit, vegetables, fibre, red meat and alcohol consumption while acknowledging the benefits of prebiotic and probiotics remains, at least for the time being, the best nutritional path to good health and disease reduction.
Finally, for those who do use a PN app, don’t become too preoccupied with the effect individual foods have on your biomarkers otherwise you are in serious danger of missing out on arguably the most important aspect of a sustainable, balanced diet – enjoyment.
For further information check out these PN apps*:
*Inclusion of these products is for information purposes and does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation
PN apps are not suitable for everyone. If you have or are recovering from an eating disorder, have a condition that affects what you eat, are receiving dietary advice from a dietician, nutritionist or other healthcare professional or are following a weight loss programme such as Noom, WW or Lighterlife or are on a prescribed weight-loss medication, a PN app may not be appropriate for you. Refer to your GP or registered dietician for further guidance.
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Have you tried a PN app? Did you find it effective? Share your experience in the comments below…