What Is Nutrigenomics? The Science Of How Food Affects Genes, Explained

Food & Nutrition Writer By Ximena Araya-Fischel, M.A
Food & Nutrition Writer
Ximena Araya-Fischel, M.A, is a journalist, IIN graduate integrative health coach, E-RYT 500 lead yoga teacher, and 500-Hour certified Pilates instructor.
Medical review by Bindiya Gandhi, M.D.
Physician
Dr. Bindiya Gandhi is an American Board Family Medicine–certified physician who completed her family medicine training at Georgia Regents University/Medical College of Georgia.
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The ever-evolving field of nutrition research is pretty exciting—and at the intersection of food, nutrition, and our human genome is the wide spectrum of nutritional genomics research. What is that, you ask? Nutritional genomics research (aka nutrigenomics) explores how the food we eat and other environmental factors directly affect our genes' functioning—specifically in regards to treatment or prevention of disease.

Supported by The Human Genome Project (1990-2003)—an international research effort to determine the DNA sequence of the entire human genome—researchers began to better understand human nutrition at the molecular level of gene expression. Within the last three decades, nutrigenomics research has advanced the interest of personalized nutrition therapy, while confirming that food conveys powerful information used by the body. And it plays an instrumental relationship in our genes, too.

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"Nutrigenomics has revealed that there is so much more to food than just the nutrients we have discovered thus far. Real food is packed with thousands of compounds with a complex and dynamic relationship with one another and your genes," shares Frank Lipman, M.D., author of The New Rules for Aging Well, as part of mbg's Functional Nutrition Coaching curriculum. Indeed, nutrigenomics is a fascinating, growing field that involves nutrition, medicine, genetics, and ethics, with ample opportunity for further gene-based scientific inquiry. 

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Nutrigenomics & nutrigenetics: Is there a difference?

While both fall under the parasol of nutritional genomics and touch on gene-diet dynamics, there are no official differentiators. Often, nutrigenomics is associated with employing molecular means to assess how food compounds influence DNA, alter gene structure and expression, and ultimately contribute to disease predisposition. In other words, nutrigenomics looks at the effects of nutrition on genes and their relationship with the genome.

Similarly, nutrigenetics is a personalized nutrition domain that examines the different phenotypic responses to diet (such as glucose levels, weight, or plasma cholesterol) depending on an individual's genetic composition, dietary intake, and health outcomes.

How does this theory work?

The thread that weaves different nutrigenomic research perspectives on diet together is the idea that health depends on a person's genetic makeup. "It's about how genes interact with the food we eat. There are about 20,000 genes, and we now know that they all interact directly or indirectly with the nutrients we ingest," adds Lipman. "These nutrients can either turn on or turn off various genes."

Like a remote control, the food we eat sends a genetic signal that can turn into different protein, gene, and metabolite modifications. In short, the nutrigenomic axiom is concerned with the influence of dietary elements on the genome that was born from the need to move beyond epidemiology and physiology to genetics and molecular biology.

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What are the potential benefits of nutrigenomics?

"The biggest benefit of nutrigenomics—the reason that people are so drawn to it—is because it's truly personalized medicine. People want to know 'what's right for my body?'" says Ginger Hutlin, M.S., RDN, owner of ChampagneNutrition and author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep. "I want answers to what I need for my unique situation." 

For Lipman, nutrigenomics capability is "huge, as it can help individualize what types of nutrients (whether in food or supplements) can help different people." Admittedly, moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach, "Nutrigenomics can help us target treatments to someone's nutritional, genetic strengths and weaknesses," he says. 

Further, the application of nutrigenomics to human health paves the way to better understand the interaction between metabolic processes and environmental influences, in both disease and optimal health. This has significant implications for developing more targeted treatment strategies for clients and patients. "Whether they're recalling health information more accurately or having an increased awareness around how important diet and lifestyle changes are, nutrigenomics seems to pique client interest," Hutlin says. "And the information they learn sticks with them when it's combined with health counseling by a qualified, credentialed professional."

What sort of practitioners can help you try these theories?

With the number of genetic companies growing within the last two decades, finding an expert nutrigenomic practitioner—based on credibility, the value of the tests they offer, and a regulated, responsible, ethical testing environment—is imperative.

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"It's vital to work with a practitioner rather than just ordering a test online on your own and trying to figure it out or working with someone who isn't a qualified health professional (with legitimate credentials)," says Hutlin. "Doctors, naturopaths, nurses, and registered dietitians are the most common health care providers who, if they specialize in nutrigenomics, can translate the results safely and effectively for you." 

Functional medicine doctors are also leading the charge on these types of practices, notes Lipman.

If you're looking to gain a more profound, thorough understanding of nutrition science, mbg's Functional Nutrition Coaching Program is the perfect path, designed to equip you with the tools and expertise necessary to learn the field and expand your education.

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The bottom line.

The way food you eat affects your genes' is an ongoing line of inquiry, within the fertile ground of nutrition research. Although the field faces some limitations—such as implementing nutrigenomics in everyday life and translating genomic advances into clinical uses—promising research persists.

The application of nutrigenomic strategies certainly shows potential for supporting human health. Creating deeper awareness of the interaction between diet, genetic background, and the microbiome is key to developing future research directions, therapeutic approaches, and preventive strategies.

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