The federal government is asking you to participate in a massive and ambitious study on diet that could revolutionize the way we view the best foods for optimal health.
Nutrition experts are generally aware of what constitutes healthy eating. Dietary Guidelines For Americans, published by the government, encourages Americans to consume fruits, vegetables, and legumes, as well as low-fat dairy products, lean meat, whole grains, and nuts. Alcohol, sodium, and refined grains are also discouraged.
Every person is different, and so are the ways that they metabolize their food. Scientists found that genes, sex, and gut microbiomes can affect how our bodies react to food. Even identical twins may have different metabolic reactions to a banana or cookie.
The National Institutes of Health will spend $189 million in five years to sort out the mess and recruit 10,000 adults. The study called Nutrition for Precision Health aims to determine how people respond to different diets and metabolize food. They plan to use the data collected to create machine-learning algorithms to offer personalized diet plans that will improve people’s health.
Diets that are unhealthy are a leading cause of chronic diseases and death around the globe. Sai Krupa Das is a nutritionist at Tufts who was involved in this study. She said that health authorities had a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition. She said, “We know what is healthy.” “But not for each subgroup in the population.”
The agency is looking for people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, as well as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, obesity, and other health issues. Investigators claim they need diversity in order to understand better how food is metabolized.
Diana Thomas, math professor of the U.S. Military Academy and participant in the study, said: “We like saying that variation is our friend.” “We are recruiting everyone we can.”
The study is part of a larger federal program, All of Us. It was launched in 2015 by President Barack Obama. All of Us aims to advance precision medicine and tailor health care by collecting health data and genetic information from one million volunteers across the country.
According to some experts, the holy grail in nutrition is developing an algorithm that can offer each individual a customized diet based upon their unique needs and physiological makeup.
Some companies, like Zoe and DayTwo, have developed algorithms to create personalized diet plans. They’ve relied on limited data such as microbiome and blood glucose analyses.
Topol stated that more data was needed to customize dietary advice. This includes information on a person’s genome, any pre-existing medical conditions, and their sleep, exercise, and stress levels. He said that one service he used recommended foods high in oxalates, such as strawberries and nuts. Topol’s kidney stones have a long history, and high-oxalate food can worsen them. The service did not consider this. He said, “They advised that I eat the worst food possible for me: nuts.”
Topol and his Scripps colleagues are conducting a precision nutrition study to determine if they can predict the effect of different foods on blood sugar levels and if avoiding blood sugar spikes will prevent health problems.
He said that the NIH’s study was so comprehensive, large, and well-funded that it would likely yield promising results. He noted that the NIH study would be helpful to people who are interested in learning what an optimal diet is, not just for humans but for themselves.
Online enrollment is now open for the Nutrition for Precision Health Study. Researchers say that people who participate will feel good about contributing to groundbreaking research and receive free analyses of their microbiomes, blood sugar fluctuations daily, insulin, gut hormones, and satiety, as well as other aspects of their metabolic health.
Holly Nicastro is a coordinator and program director for the NIH. She said that people will receive a great deal of information about their health.
A second selling point is that volunteers will be paid. Participants can earn $300 in the first phase. The second phase offers an additional $2,000 to those who choose to continue. Volunteers who are willing to live at the clinic for several weeks can earn up to $6,200.
It won’t be easy to take part in this study. Participants will need to give investigators access to their electronic records in the first module so they can know about their medical history and medications. The participants will have to visit a clinic at least twice to check their grip strength and body composition. The participants will provide a stool specimen and wear an activity monitor and glucose monitor for ten days as they go through their daily routine.
They’ll have to take photos of their meals during that period. Others will wear an automatic intake monitor, a camera sensor attached to their eyeglasses. Fake glasses will be provided to those who do not wear them. The sensor takes photos to monitor food intake.
Nicastro stated that participants could remove the device to maintain privacy. She said that participants can remove the device if they are going to a doctor or need to view sensitive material for work.
During the second stage of the study, a subset will be consuming three different test dietings for two weeks. All meals will be provided to the participants.
Nicastro stated that the diets will contain different amounts of sugar, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and fiber, but they won’t name them. She added that “there is no diet labeled as a healthy one or that will cause participants to react.” “We do not want participants to think that one diet will be good for them, or another diet will be bad.”
For example, one diet contains lots of plant food, moderate amounts of dairy, meat, and fish, and low amounts of sweet drinks and desserts. One diet contains high cuts of refined grain, meat, sweet drinks, and processed food, while low doses of fruit, vegetables, or whole grains are consumed. The third diet is characterized by moderate to high amounts of vegetables, meat, dairy products, nuts, oils, and fish.
Nicastro stated that there should be enough “sunlight” between diets to help investigators understand what factors cause the different metabolic responses. “Our goal was design three diets to elicit different responses from participants, so we could study these differences,” Nicastro said.
The third phase, which is the most intensive, will involve 500 people living at a clinic for six weeks. The investigators will be providing all meals and tracking every bite of food that the participants consume. They will also closely monitor the participants’ weight, sleep patterns, physical activity levels, glucose levels, and how many calories they burn and destroy.
How can I join?
Anyone in the United States over 18 years old can participate. Enroll at the joinallofus.org study site. You’ll then have the opportunity to enroll online for Nutrition for Precision Health. This study is being conducted at 14 research centers across six states: Alabama, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and North Carolina.
Topol says that developing better algorithms to provide personalized diet advice will take a long time, perhaps years. But it is sorely needed. He said that each of us had a unique metabolism, microbiome, and genome. “We can be smarter than this. We have general nutrition recommendations for all people.