10/27/20

How Data Science is Advancing Personalized Nutrition

When it comes to improving one’s health, there’s no solution that works for everyone. To help people look at their diets more objectively, more are turning to personalized nutrition. Personalized nutrition refers to dietary recommendations that are based on a range of physical, behavioral and attitudinal data unique from one individual to the next, even our genetic and metabolic makeup. For example, a DNA test may help explain the cause of unintentional weight gain or loss.

And this bespoke approach to dietary guidance is in high demand. A study by Reports and Data finds that the personalized nutrition market is projected to balloon to $11 billion by 2026, a sign that previous market momentum continues to build. Demands for tools like wearables, food apps, and testing kits like genetic testers have strongly contributed to this growth.

But are there broader nutrition lessons to be learned from individualized data?

Personalized Nutrition Breeds Big Data

While personalized nutrition’s primary goal is to help us better understand our bodies and unique nutrient needs, the data derived from these assessments is actually allowing researchers to uncover new insights in food and nutrition science too.

For example, some personalized nutrition plans involve knowing the makeup of microbes in your gut, as it helps determine how much and how long food gets dissolved in your stomach. The Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted an abstract presentation of how a type of gut bacteria can potentially help predict a person’s likelihood of weight-loss success. Moreover, a similar study from the University of Córdoba suggests that gut microbiota works differently depending on one’s sex. As such, gender matters when diagnosing what diets are harmful or effective on one’s person.

Other studies that highlight how useful personalized interventions are for nutrition research include a randomized controlled trial conducted by the University of Scranton found that postmenopausal women who did personalized high-intensity interval training (HIIT) lost an average of 8.7% of their body weight. They monitored their exercises with a Fitbit and used the data to ensure that the exercises they did were matched best for their bodies. Separate research published on Health Education & Behavior highlights how low-income postpartum women can get similar results after tracking personal physical activity data.

The more users that join the personalized nutrition movement, the more data both health professionals and researchers alike will be able to use and learn from. And eventually, questions that have caused controversy and confusion for years could finally have clear answers – like why different eating patterns have variable effects from one person to the next, or why high sodium intake appears to contribute to hypertension in some people and not others.

Challenges and Ethical Concerns

While arguably better for personal health, there’s no denying that the usage of personal health data has its own set of challenges. Chief among them may be the murky ethics of data collection. Consumer research by HP shows that not only is the majority of the population uncomfortable with their data being collected, but also most people don’t understand what’s being done with it. A good example of this is how Google automatically has access to your Fitbit numbers for marketing purposes. Unless the customer reads the small print, it’s unlikely thery’re aware of this.

Fortunately, new policies are making data collection more transparent, like the “Precision Data Collaborative.” According to an article on Forbes, it’s a policy that aims to meet the privacy and transparency needs of consumers via constant consent. It mandates that companies constantly let their users know how their data is being used, stored, and shared over time. In the next three years, it aims to onboard one million signatories, including businesses, medical teams, and local governments.

Personalized data can provide a lot of unique insights that not only allow people to make better decisions for their unique bodies and lifestyles, but also offer exciting new ways to study nutrition and health data. While still in its infancy, further refinement in personalized nutrition could prove to be a game-changer.

Josie Borelay is a freelance writer who takes a special interest in the ins-and-outs of consumer technology and trends in nutrition science. Her favorite past time is coming up with neat vegan recipes she likes sharing with her younger sister and taking her dog on long evening walks in the nearby park.