Our DNA determines many things. Our eye color. The nature of our internal clock. How impulsive or thrill-seeking we are. The likelihood of developing various diseases.
And, yes, what we should and shouldn’t eat.
Sure, you can pick a standard healthy diet — Mediterranean, perhaps? — and follow that, but for the best health outcome, eating for your genes is the way to go.
Based on my DNA, for instance, I should be chomping daily on raspberries and turnip greens. Elk should be a meat of choice. Nutritional yeast, quinoa, chia seeds, passion fruit, whole-grain breads, lentils and fresh mussels should all be in my regular mealtime rotation.
I should go easy on saturated fats while increasing my intake of vitamins A and B12, but I don’t have to worry so much about overdoing the carbs.
And I am not lactose-intolerant.
I didn’t say “Hey, Siri,” or summon Alexa to look up my DNA and tell me these things. I signed up for a comprehensive nutritional analysis through a local startup called GenoPalate.
GenoPalate is the brainchild of molecular biologist Sherry Zhang. A native of China, she came to the U.S. in 2001 to pursue her doctorate at Marquette University. She then continued her career at the Medical College of Wisconsin, where she taught and did genomic research in obesity and metabolic health until January of this year. At that time, she resigned from her position as assistant professor of medicine (in endocrinology, metabolism and clinical nutrition) to devote herself full time to her new business.
Besides Zhang, who is CEO, the staff of GenoPalate — with offices on N. Prospect Ave. — now numbers 16 and includes two other senior scientists with PhDs and three registered dietitians.
Sit down with her and a few other team members, and you sense a genuine enthusiasm for their mission, which they say is to help people align their eating habits with their unique DNA profile.
Zhang stressed that they aren’t there to provide health care but rather “informed decision-making.”
“The goal is that people will take the recommendations and that it will help them build a lifestyle shift,” said Neil Giugno, the company’s COO. “We won’t choose an established diet plan and say follow this. We wanted to get away from the word ‘diet.’ “
Ways to have your genes mapped
Customers can sign up in two ways: If starting from scratch, they can order a saliva kit from GenoPalate, which will analyze their DNA and identify their nutritional markers. That option costs $199.
Or, if they’ve already had their DNA analyzed through a site like 23andme or ancestry.com, they can send over their data and pay $99 for just the nutritional analysis. (Two-thirds of their clients so far have fallen into this camp.)
If your DNA is already done, you can expect a report in two to four weeks. Otherwise, from the time GenoPalate sends out your kit, your wait will be four to six weeks.
The dietary recommendations GenoPalate then shares are based on more than 100 known nutrition biomarkers. These are variants (or mutations) within genes that determine how our bodies interact with various foods. The biomarkers Zhang’s team has chosen to use are based on large-scale human correlation studies as well as scientific evidence about the genes themselves.
As the nutrition genome field grows, and more studies become available, the team will be able to “dive even deeper into the genetic code” to further refine users’ personalized nutrition plans, based on the new knowledge in nutritional genetics, Zhang said. Updated reports may even be made available to past customers.
Since launching last fall, the team has made a slew of revisions in what they initially provide those customers. A recurring theme in feedback from the 500-plus clients who tried it so far was “‘OK, this is great, but now what can I do with it?’” Giugno said.
At the same time, some people want more of the science — they want to know what gene variants they have and don’t have.
The idea is to “strike a balance,” he said.
What the report says
The colorful report then sent to customers includes some general information about DNA and genes, followed by colorful, easy-to-read graphics showing recommended levels of consumption of various nutrients, from carbs and protein to individual types of fats to vitamins and minerals, as well as substances like alcohol and gluten.
From these I learned that both caffeine and alcohol are removed from my system at a slower rate than average. Also that I should consume high levels of omega 3 fats and I have only a moderate sensitivity to gluten.
Next come examples of foods that are especially good for you and why.
For example, pumpkin is good for me because it matches my needs for moderate amounts of vitamin A and fiber and is low in sugar and high in zinc. Fresh oysters are low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in zinc with a moderate level of sodium (if only I liked them!).
The report concludes with a larger list of foods your DNA says you should eat more of.
These fall under headings like fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, legumes, starches and more, about five or six dozen foods in all.
Just because a healthy food does not appear on your list does not mean you shouldn’t eat it, Giugno and Zhang stressed. It just means another healthy food edged it out because it had more of what your genes say are good for you.
And it doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally indulge in not-so-healthy foods.
“If you want to go to McDonald’s after this, go,” Giugno said. “But then tonight at Whole Foods, choose some items on this list.”
Other factors not included
The initial report is based strictly on DNA. It does not take into account a person’s height, weight, build, age or gender, health history, activity level or lifestyle, or any dietary preferences. This information is not even collected.
“You’re vegetarian? Your food lists will still contain meat,” Giugno said.
However, for an extra fee ($149 to $169), you can sign up for the company’s Concierge program, four weeks of one-on-one coaching with a registered dietitian plus meal plans. For this service, all of that additional information is collected and taken into account.
If you just want a few meal plans, those also available a la carte for $25 to $50. To make the gene-based meals more palatable, GenoPalate has partnered with local chefs with years of experience. My meal plans, for example, were created by Andy Tenaglia, chef-owner of Lagnappe Brasserie.
Meal plans can be created for individuals, or they can be tailored to couples or whole families, in which case all family members’ nutritional profiles are taken into account.
And what of our ancestry? Does the diet followed for centuries by our ancestors come into play?
Giugno said the GenoPalate team thought about incorporating an ancestral food component into its reports but decided against it.
“We want to stay focused on the individual,” he explained. “This is about you, not the average Scandinavian.”
Fast facts about nutrition and your DNA
The gene variants used in GenoPalate’s analyses are also known as SNPs (“snips”), short for single nucleotide polymorphisms. These are naturally occurring gene mutations resulting from environmental cues (including food consumption patterns) over many generations. Science has identified 5 million to 10 million of them.
Gene-based biomarkers related to nutrition and diet cover a wide range of traits and tendencies. To list just a few: lactose intolerance, gluten sensitivity, alcohol risks, vitamin needs, fiber needs, metabolism, interactions with high-fat foods, and satiety (how quickly you feel full when eating).
Some nutrition categories have multiple known biomarkers. For example, there are more than a dozen connected just to dietary fat intake alone.
Our DNA is set at birth and fundamentally doesn’t change. So theoretically, a baby’s DNA could be analyzed for his or her nutrition biomarkers and the parents could start planning a healthy menu for the child’s 10th birthday party.
GenoPalate’s recommendations are based on more than 100 known nutrition gene variants, and that number is growing all the time as more studies are undertaken.
Nutrition properties associated with these variants are based on human correlation studies involving most often thousands to hundreds of thousands of people.
Because they share identical DNA, identical twins most likely will always have 100% identical genetically determined nutrition needs as well.
The total length of DNA in your body is equivalent to 70 trips to the sun and back.
All the digital information in the world could be stored in just 2 grams of DNA because it is capable of holding so much data.
And just in case you wondered if we really “are what we eat,” we share 50% of our DNA with bananas.
Getting the family together; members share DNA, but nutrition needs vary
It would be easy if everyone within a family had identical gene-based nutrition needs. Meal planning would be a breeze!
Alas, that’s not the case — nor is it even possible (except between identical twins).
But there is value in collecting gene-based nutrition information for the whole family, according to Sherry Zhang, founder and CEO of GenoPalate.
Zhang’s research at the Medical College focused on genetic variations within families, with a special emphasis on obesity in children and adolescents.
Based on her work, “we know that young individuals with metabolic conditions” are at increased risk to have these problems throughout adulthood, she said. “Early intervention with preventive planning makes a difference.”
She recommends waiting until kids are of school age to have their DNA analyzed for nutrition (or any) purposes, old enough to understand the sample collection procedure and cooperate.
My own kids are well beyond school age — they’re all over 30 — but we thought it would be fun to see how our results compared.
Zhang had predicted that my nutrition biomarkers would be roughly 50% different from my kids and that they, as siblings, would be 50% different from one another. That’s how genes in general work.
In fact, my two younger daughters, who are identical twins, and I are 65% alike, nutritionally speaking, while my nutritional needs are only 56% in line with my oldest daughter. And the twins and their older sister are 71% alike. (GenoPalate does not provide this information in their reports; I asked them to calculate it for me.)
There were surprises for all of us. For example, Candace was surprised to see a recommendation to keep her fat intake low, “because it’s difficult for me to maintain weight, so I try hard to make sure I’m getting enough fat.”
At the same time, seeing that her genes show she has high satiety made sense.
Hilary remarked on the recommendation to eat less salt. “I definitely eat more salt than the average person, but I was literally told by a doctor in the last few years that I have ‘beautiful blood pressure,’ so that was a little surprising.”
While the reports show quite a bit of overlap in foods and other areas, what further complicates the situation is that the four of us all follow different diets (it’s true — come visit our house some holiday!).
I eat pretty much anything, focusing on variety among a wide range of healthy foods (with a nod to my sweet tooth).
Both my twins (now 32) became vegetarian in college, but Hilary will eat sustainable fish and seafood, while Candace recently decided to go 80% paleo, avoiding sugar and dairy and minimizing legumes and grains.
And my oldest, Gwen, who is 35, follows a mostly paleo diet, avoiding (with occasional exceptions) grains and legumes, sugar and processed foods — and dairy foods altogether.
We’ll have to delve deeper into our GenoPalate reports, but at a glance I can see that there are foods recommended for all of us, that all of us would eat. Common ground!
Family members who sign up for GenoPalate together receive a small break on the total cost.
As customers look over their recommended food lists, they’re bound to find foods that are less common or at least unfamiliar to them.
GenoPalate does not plan to share recipes at this time — just meal plans, under a separate service — but it might post instructional videos on its website showing how to prepare some of the less-familiar foods, said Neil Giugno, the company’s COO.
According to GenoPalate founder Sherry Zhang, foods rise to the top through a system that carefully analyzes their nutritional value to each person. Foods that appear on your list are those that will produce the best possible outcome of wellness, based your DNA.
Here’s the “why” behind a few of my recommended foods:
Raspberries are lower in sugar, have a better Omega-3 profile and are higher in fiber than other fruits.
Elk is very low in total fat, saturated fat and sodium and high in protein and vitamins B12 and B6.
Turnip greens are high in fiber and vitamin E, more so than just about any other leafy green. (But happily, my list also includes collards, kale and spinach.)
I decided to dive right in and give two of these foods a try. Both are foods I’ve never eaten before, and both were not so easy to find.
For elk, I had to go directly to the farm: Lakewinds Elk Farm in Grafton. The farm also sells its meat at the West Bend Farmers Market on Saturdays. I thought a simple burger would be a good introduction to this ultra-lean meat. This recipe was adapted heavily from nevadafoodies.com.
Ultimate Elk Burgers
Recipe tested by Nancy Stohs
Makes 3 burgers
- 1 pound ground elk
- 1/3 cup grated onion (less)
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 ½ tablespoons chopped parsley
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1/3 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
- Sliced Swiss or fontina cheese
- Melted butter for buns
- Whole-grain or sesame seed buns
- Sliced tomato
In a large bowl, mix together ground elk, grated onion, minced garlic, parsley, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce and salt. Shape into four ½-inch-thick patties.
Heat a flat-top grill or skillet over medium heat and brush with oil. Cook the burgers, turning once, until browned on both sides and to desired doneness. During the last few minutes of cooking, top each burger with a slice of cheese.
Toast buns, then brush cut sides with melted butter.
Put a slice of tomato on bottom portion of buns and top with an elk burger and bun tops and serve.
I was wary of turnip greens, though I know they’re popular in the South. I found them fresh at Fresh Thyme Farmers Market on E. Pleasant St. (99 cents a bunch!). They were a little tougher and a little earthier in flavor than I might like, but hey, my genes know what’s best.
This frittata recipe is from Food52.
Turnip Greens Frittata
Recipe tested by Nancy Stohs
Makes 4 servings
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large or 2 small white potatoes, skin on and finely diced (no larger than ¼-inch; 1 ½ cups total)
- 1 garlic clove, smashed and chopped
- 1 to 2 bunches turnip greens, stems discarded and leaves sliced crosswise into ½-inch strips (you should have 4 cups loosely packed sliced greens)
- 8 eggs, lightly beaten
- Coarsely ground black pepper
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Warm the oil in a large skillet. Add potatoes and cook over medium-high heat until browned on the edges and soft in the center. Add garlic and season with salt after potatoes have been cooking for 2 minutes. Stir in turnip greens and cook until wilted and tender, about 3 minutes.
Season eggs with salt and pepper. Pour eggs into pan, sprinkle with the cheese and transfer to preheated oven. Bake until frittata is just set, about 10 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes, then slice and serve.