In July 2016, personal trainer Donald Benjamin paid almost $300 to get the kind of news that most people dread: He should stop eating cheese.
“Although I’ve never had any symptoms, genetically, I’m lactose intolerant,” explains the 27-year-old fitness fanatic, who learned about that sensitivity and other nutritional needs from DNAFit, an at-home testing kit that supplies dietary and fitness recommendations based on users’ individual genes. “And I love cheese,” he says. “I really love it.”
Still, Benjamin tried giving up dairy for two whole months. “I think I did feel a little better,” says the West Long Branch, NJ, resident, who admits it was curiosity, rather than a specific health or weight-loss goal, that initially tempted him take the test in the first place. “What I think it did most for me was help me to stop eating cheese mindlessly.”
Health nuts are turning their homes into mini medical labs, swabbing their cheeks or spitting into vials to collect samples of their DNA, just as they would for companies such as Ancestry and 23andMe. But, instead of supplying fun facts about their family tree, companies such as DNAFit ($299), Vitagene ($99) and Fitgenetix ($495) turn genetic information into personalized advice about everything from caffeine sensitivity to sugar intake.
“Since we debuted on the market in 2014, our sales numbers have pretty much doubled every year,” Avi Lasarow, CEO of the UK-based DNAFit, says.
Lezlie Mitchell, a Los Angeles-based actress and blogger who travels to NYC frequently, says Vitagene worked for her. In February, she sent a saliva sample off to the San Francisco-based company and because she had done an Ancestry test in the past, she got her results back in just 48 hours (the two companies have an agreement to share data; Vitagene’s turnaround, without previous genetic testing, is four to six weeks).
‘I have been sleeping like a baby, and my energy levels are better.’
Mitchell was advised to avoid caffeine after noon, because she’s a “slow processor,” meaning it takes her longer than average to metabolize the buzzy stimulant. She was also told to start taking a a daily magnesium pill in the evening, which she buys in a bundle — along with probiotics, zinc and B-complex vitamins, among others — from Vitagene for $79 a month. Since heeding the company’s advice, she says she’s been feeling great.
“I have been sleeping like a baby, and my energy levels are better.”
Mitchell, 35, says she’s also lost about 10 pounds since she’s been adhering to the Vitagene-approved regimen, which involves shunning supersugary fruits, such as ripe bananas and pineapple. “[It] takes out the guesswork,” says Mitchell, who in the past has also tried the ketogenic diet, the blood-type diet, and going vegan, and turned to this plan about a year after giving birth, to help with losing baby weight. “It gives you exactly what you need without [your] having to figure out the best route for you, so why not?”
This, says Dr. Louis Aronne, director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at Weill Cornell Medicine/New York-Presbyterian, is the DNA diet’s biggest advantage. “One thing we find [at the clinic] is that people want to be told what to do,” he says, pointing out that a gene-specific diet is likely no better for encouraging weight loss than any other equivalently healthy plan. “[Some people] find that they do better with structure. And for that type of person, maybe this is helpful, because it says do this and this.”
Dr. Holly Lofton, director of the medical weight-management program at NYU Langone Health, agrees. “It’s like a horoscope — I read my horoscope and I’m Pisces, and it sounds like me, but I also read Libra and Leo and it sounds like me, too. Low-carb, low-fat, watching the timing of your eating, avoiding sugars, all these things really come together to provide lots of different ways that can be effective for weight loss in different people.”
But over at Vitagene, CEO Mehdi Maghsoodnia swears that a decade from now, no one will think twice about swabbing their cheek to decide what — and what not — to eat.
“You will think it would have been crazy not to do this.”
A recent study out of the Stanford University School of Medicine, which Dr. Lofton references as a rebuttal to the claims made by proponents of genetic diets, suggests otherwise.
This past February, researchers published the results of a rigorous two-year clinical trial in which more than 600 overweight and obese subjects were split into two groups, and instructed to follow either a low-fat or a low-carb diet. To determine which diet each participant got, they were genetically tested and then sorted based on key indicators of carb or fat sensitivity in the blood.
In the end, the study found that neither group was more successful and all of the participants — whether carb- or fat-starved — lost weight. The takeaway? When it comes to shedding pounds, the most important quality of a diet is whether or not someone can stick with it. (An as-of-yet unpublished study out of Europe, and supplied by DNAFit, suggests that a genetic diet and a low-carb/high-fat ketogenic diet are similarly effective when it comes to weight loss, but the DNA-specific one has a clearer impact on other indicators of good health, such as cholesterol and glucose levels.)
Meanwhile, Donald Benjamin recently took a short break from his gene-specific diet to try the high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet. Going keto came with a big bonus: dairy.
“It was like, ‘Oh my god, I get to have cheese again,’ ” he says. But, he’s still convinced that he should ultimately stop eating cheddar, gouda and the like, based on what DNAFit told him.
“I’m trying to cut down [on dairy] until I’m at a point where I don’t miss it,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Fun’s over, back to reality.’ ”