Diet & Food

We Tried One of Those DNA Test Kits and Were Surprisingly Impressed

If there’s one thing nutrition science has taught us, it’s that there is no such things as a one-size-fits-all diet. What works for one guy may fail miserably for another.

Just last month, a comprehensive study in JAMA failed to pick a winner between low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets. And while there’s some good evidence that very broad, whole-foods based diets heavy on healthy fats and fish (basically, Mediterranean-style diets) are good options for most, many of us are looking for more specific eating plans—especially if we’re trying to lose weight or pack on muscle.

Enter DNA-based nutrition, also known as “nutrigenetics.”

The basic idea undergirding nutrigenetics is that a person’s genes help determine how he will respond to caffeine, fat, dairy, crabs, and other dietary components. While the science of nutrigenetics is far from complete, research has already turned up some genetic variations or mutations that seem to predict how a person’s body will respond to different foods or nutrients.

Habit is a new DNA testing company that claims to utilize the latest in nutrigenetic science to better inform a person’s diet choice. Submit your DNA and blood samples, and (for $300) Habit will offer you personalized nutrition advice based on your genes and current biomarkers.

I gave Habit a shot. Here’s what I learned.

The Testing Process Was Interesting

A few weeks after I placed my online order, Habit’s at-home test kit arrived in a big tome-like package that included a “challenge shake,” cotton swabs, and materials for three finger-print blood collections.

I was ready to jump right into the testing, but a quick read of the included literature presented some hold-ups. First of all, I needed to fast for at least 10 hours before the test. (The people at Habit recommend taking the test in the morning since fasting overnight could swallow most of that 10-hour requirement.)

Also, since the test looks at metabolism and other health variables, I was instructed not to work out strenuously the day before testing. Check. And since the test takes about 2.5 hours start to finish—albeit with a lot of idle time baked in—I waited for a weekend morning to get after it.

The morning of my test, I logged onto Habit and answered a few questions about myself—including my height, weight, activity habits and waist circumference, which I was able to assess using the tape measure included in my kit. The Habit site then provided clear step-by-step video instructions that walked me through the test.

The swabs were up next. I had to rub the insides of each of my checks for 45 seconds—coating the swabs with DNA-loaded cheek cells. After that came the first of three blood tests. After pricking a fingertip, I dripped my blood onto a little placard.

This part of the test seemed like it was going to be complicated—and maybe a little painful. But it was neither. Following the video’s instructions—wrapping my hand around a glass of warm water first, and then pinching my finger before pricking—yielded rapid blood drips and little to no pain.

Shake It Up

I can’t say the same for the “challenge shake,” which the video misleadingly calls “the easy part” of the test. I was instructed to slam it within 5 minutes. But after one sip, I thought, Wow, this tastes really sugary. I checked the side of the bottle and saw that it contained a whopping 75 grams of sugar—or roughly 5 tablespoons of the sweet stuff. I don’t have many strict diet rules, but I do try to stay away from added sugar. Pounding two Cokes-worth of sugar in less than 5 minutes was going to seriously mess with my day.

And I was right. I started feeling jittery within 10 minutes of finishing the shake, and an hour later I was practically bouncing off the walls. But while that part of the test was annoying—and not something I’d ever want to repeat—I understood that it (couple with the blood samples) would help the people at Habit assess my body’s metabolic health and insulin response.

After two more simple blood tests—one 30 minutes after I’d finished the shake, and a second 90 minutes later—I was done with my testing. My hands still shaking from the sugar-rush, I packed up my kit and dropped it off at FedEx.

Three weeks later, I received an email letting me know my results were in.

The Test Results

When I logged in to see my results, Habit first provided me with a simple overview of my health status and DNA findings. The overview was broken down into simple color-coded categories—including my heart and weight status, as well as specifics on how my body handles all three macronutrients, lactose (dairy) and caffeine.

While my body’s response to most of these dietary components was normal and healthy, I learned in the section on fat metabolism that some of my cholesterol readings are just outside of the normal range. This was a surprise because the lipid profile I recently received from my doctor showed I was in tip-top shape.

Clicking through for more detail, Habit informed me that my fasting LDL and total cholesterol levels—neither of which were covered by my doctor’s testing—were slightly elevated, and that my diet might benefit from lower amounts of saturated fat and more fiber. I also learned that I carry a gene variant that research has associated with elevated blood fat levels.

After reading through the rest of my results—all of which were easy to understand—I clicked over to the “Plan” section of my Habit page, which took my results and synthesized them into personalized nutrition guidelines based on my health goals. (I’d told Habit that I care most about optimizing my health.)

I learned that, based on my test results, I am what Habit calls a “Range Seeker,” and that my health would be best supported by a diet higher in fats and carbs but with moderate protein intakes. I learned my target daily calorie intake is 2,580, and Habit provided a handful of specific dietary takeaways based on my results. For example, I was told to pack 50 percent of my meals with carbs because my body handles them well.

Habit’s Recommendations

Habit also laid out a detailed nutrition plan that started high-level—aim for 13 servings a day of fats, five of fruits, etc.—and then exploded into much more detailed pop-outs filled with information on ideal foods, serving sizes, and other useful information based on my test results. What I read was far more informative than I expected, and so neatly organized that it was simple to follow.

Also, as a guy who writes a lot about nutrition and the latest health research, I appreciated that my Habit results didn’t appear to overreach or become too rigid. For instance, I was given nine “hero foods”—things like kidney beans or wild salmon, each of which provides my body with multiple nutrients it needs to thrive—but I wasn’t being pushed toward some whacko, ultra-restrictive eating plan. This looked like the kind of diet experts have recommended to me again and again—that is, a whole foods based diet—but with some weighting and tweaks designed to match my body’s needs.

“Many people are just really confused about what they should be doing to optimize health through nutrition,” said Neil Gimmer, Habit’s founder and CEO, when we spoke on the phone a few weeks after I’d received my results. “The promise and delivery of Habit is that we start by looking at how you are unique and different, and then we go to crafting an individual plan.”

Grimmer explained to me that there are seven “Habit types,” and that my type (Range Seeker) is the most flexible of the bunch—meaning I can eat the broadest range of foods. He told me that when he first took his company’s test, he was overweight and not in ideal health, and that his Habit type was a “protein seeker,” which correlates with a high-protein, moderate-fat, low-carb diet. “Over time, as my health improved, I moved into the Plant Seeker type, which emphasized plants and grains and vegetables,” he says.

We talked for a while about his company’s advisory board—one packed with nutrition scientists and health researchers—and that all the results they produce are “grounded in clinical validation.” My test results and nutrition plan seemed to bear out this rigor.

Before taking the test, I’d been worried my results would be either useless or too prescriptive—pushing me hard toward a small subset of foods or giving me diet advice that the current research doesn’t support. That wasn’t the case. The tests results got specific where possible, but stayed moderate where appropriate.

When I told Grimmer I recognized and appreciated this, he said, “We can always jump on some extreme thing and see a result for 2 or 3 or 6 months, but at a certain point our bodies fight back.”

He says the goal with his company was to provide people with real insights and science-backed guidance, but not to overreach. “That’s why we called the company ‘Habit’ and not ‘bad diet,’” he jokes.

While many of the new DNA testing services over promise and under deliver, his does neither.

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