The DNA of dieting: Do genes hold the key to mysteries of weight loss?
CUTTING out junk food and counting your calories are the usual ways to a slimmer you, but swabbing your cheek? Lori Anderson finds a revolutionary new way to control your weight
IT IS a truth universally acknowledged that few women are as delighted by their weight and body shape as they would wish to be. Mother Nature may have dealt out our hand, but a new matriarch, one dressed in a sharply tailored white lab coat, has come to our aid. Enter Madame Science. It appears that DNA may hold the secret to weight management within its tightly coiled grip.
While it seems as if not a day goes past without the launch of yet another diet designed to reignite hope among those of us who are no longer speaking to our bathroom scales, the Nordiska Diet does offer a notable difference from its competition. Clearing the shelves of junk food may be the usual protocol before embarking on a new health regimen, but swabbing one’s cheek?
It might be a cliche that one man’s food is another man’s poison, but in the field of nutrigenomics there is no finer truism. Since the human genome was sequenced scientists have learned that specific genes play a role in our metabolism while others are linked to obesity and how well we respond to specific types of exercise.
Studies in twins show that half of the variation in body weight and diet response can be put down to genetic factors. While 99 per cent of our genes are identical, it is that crucial 1 per cent which is different that gives us our blonde hair or blue eyes or stubborn resistance to conventional weight loss.
At the laboratory in Newcastle of My Genomics, the company behind Nordiska, a strand of my DNA was scrutinised for the eight specific gene variations that have been linked to the different ways in which we absorb nutrients, metabolise fat, carbohydrates and protein and respond to exercise. The results were then run through an algorithm that analysed the data and then slotted me into one of four dietary categories. I fell into the “GI Smart” category as my results show that I don’t need a completely low-carb diet and that I also put weight on easily with a high fat intake. Having gained weight on Atkins, real-life experience backs this up.
The four categories are:
• Balanced: In which an individual can best lose weight through reducing their calories drawn from a balance of carbohydrates, fat and protein.
• Fat Smart: A person should focus on a diet with a lower than average amount of fat.
• Carb Smart: A person should focus on a diet with a lower than average amount of carbohydrates
• GI Smart: A diet with the emphasis on slowly digested carbs (carbohydrates with a low glycemic index) rather than very low in carbs as this reduces insulin levels as well as being safe and satiating. Most low GI diets also recommend cutting down on fat, especially saturates.
The diet industry is constantly evolving with those cursed with stubborn extra pounds now being offered a range of new options. The latest arrival from Europe is the KEN diet, which stands for Ketogenic Enteral Nutrition. The diet, which is popular in both Italy and Spain as well as America, involves a small feeding tube being passed through the customer’s nose with them being “fed” a liquid comprised of fat, protein and water for ten days. The solution drips through the nose and into the stomach, delivering just 800 calories a day.
The results, for those with the stomach for it, can be surprising, with as much as 20lb lost as fat is burned off through a process known as ketosis – when fat alone is used as an energy source for the body as glycogen levels are depleted in the liver.
However, one Scottish businesswoman, who preferred not to be named, lasted just 48 hours on what she described as a “starvation diet” before abandoning the diet, which cost £375 for a ten-day course. “It was awful,” she explained: “Having a nasal drip in made me look and feel as if I was on my last legs and, although the fluids were supposed to suppress my appetite, I was just so hungry I had to stop.”
Another option, the LighterLife diet, is designed to restrict participants to just 560 calories and comes in the form of three soups or shakes per day. The company, which had a turnover last year of £21.4 million, was set up by two overweight friends, Bar Hewlett and Jackie Cox. Upon learning that scientists had devised the contents of survival food packs for use in disaster areas to contain the perfect mix of vitamins, minerals and protein required to keep a body healthy, the enterprising pair decided to incorporate this idea into their diet products.
In comparison the Nordiska diet is a little less extreme. My Genomics and the Nordiska diet was developed by Dr Carolyn Horrocks, whose background is in cell biology and who was keen to devise a way in which new technology could assist people in their everyday life. When she tested focus groups, she discovered that people universally wished to tackle their weight problems and improve their fitness levels.
“I have worked on the Diabetes types 1 and 2 in the past and this combination is kind of where the idea came from. I also teach yoga and was interested in why people turn to complementary therapies. As part of the Newcastle science city project, we were looking for technology that could be applied to everyday problems and we were trying to raise public awareness of science.
“The test was originally more extensive but when we tested in focus groups we found that it was hard to convey that amount of information in a usable format. So we asked people what were their key goals, and weight management came first closely followed by fitness. With a clear objective in mind we could give much clearer and practical advice based on the DNA results.”
As part of the Nordiska Diet, customers have access to a trained dietician who, once they know how their bodies react to certain food types, will assist them in finding the right menus for the week. Mariette Abrahams previously worked as a clinical gastroenterology dietician with the NHS and has firm views on diets. “Diets are a short-term measure for results that just don’t last. What is needed is an approach that takes into consideration the mindset of the person, their motivation and behaviour, add to that some knowledge such as DNA, nutrition, preparation, food composition and only then can you set realistic goals and make a plan.”
When she took the DNA test the results confirmed what she had long suspected. “I am ‘Fat Smart’. Interestingly, I kind of knew that because I feel awful when I eat high-fat foods and I need a lot of carbs to keep my energy levels and my mood up.”
As well as eight consultations with Mariette, customers of the Nordiska Diet will also have four e-consultations with the company’s fitness coach. The DNA test also reveals which type of exercise will be most beneficial for each individual such as running, weight-lifting or yoga and how many hours would be required a week for weight loss.
The £299 question, for that is the cost of a three-month package which includes the DNA analysis and 12 e-consultations with dietician and fitness instructor, is – does the Nordiska diet work? Yes, according to Joan Thirlaway, 63, who signed up in October last year and reveals she has since dropped from a size 20 to a size 12.
Thirlaway also discovered that she fell into the “Fat Smart” category, and had, as she put it: “the metabolism of a sloth”. “Like most slimmers I’ve tried every diet under the sun, they all worked but as soon as I stopped I put all the weight plus a bit more back on. I even ran classes for Weight Watchers, hoping that would keep me slim, but that didn’t work. All of these slimming clubs tell you that once you reach goal weight you can take back foods you’ve given up, this just doesn’t work and it’s really not in their interest to keep members thin, that’s why they give out lifetime memberships so you go back again and again.
“I can say without any fear that this time I will not regain the weight I’ve lost, as long as I keep to low-fat options. So many restaurants now publish the nutritional data of meals online even eating out holds no fears for me. I’ve got rid of all my larger size clothing, no more expanding wardrobe for me.”
The key to success for Joan was the knowledge of how her body reacts to high levels of fat. “I was determined to get everything I could out of this opportunity. Having that knowledge was more valuable to me than a lottery win. If I go out for coffee and cake with a friend I don’t go for the Carrot Cake I look for something like Lemon Drizzle or I have a toasted tea cake instead.”
TALE OF THE TAPE
The concept of dieting to reduce one’s weight is adopted in Europe among the upper classes, pioneered by Madame de Pompadour, right, who announces that she is “skeletally thin”.
Jean Brillat-Savarin, a French food aesthete, put forward the notion that to eat in moderation is a sign of refinement.
William Banting, an English aristocrat drops 46lb on a diet of mutton, eggs and vegetables. His Letter on Corpulence becomes a bestseller and inspires a trend in ‘banting’ as dieting became known.
The concept of calories, which was then only used in the world of physics, is introduced to the public by Lulu Hunt Peter when she publishes Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories, which went on to sell two million copies.
Hollywood stars shine the spotlight on the Hollywood 18-Day Diet which involves grapefruit, boiled eggs, green vegetables and melba toast.
The world’s first diet drink is released by Coca Cola, but Tab, top, only becomes popular with women as many men refuse to drink from a pink can.
The yo-yo effect is illustrated by Oprah Winfrey, right, who announces on her TV show that she has lost 67lb. Unfortunately, one year later she gains back 67lb and announces she will embark on: “no more diets”.
The Atkins and South Beach diets popularise the ‘low-carb diet’ and are adopted by millions.
Vogue magazine announces it will no longer use any models whom they suspect as having eating disorders or being dangerously underweight.
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