Personalized Wellness: What's next in nutrition and health

There’s no denying that customization is a trend permeating today’s marketplace. You can begin your day scrolling through a news feed based on your preferred outlets and reading history, make a trip to your closet for a stylist-recommended outfit per your online style profile and then, finally, head out the door with a personalized playlist piping through your headphones. And when it comes to health and wellness, customization continues. To be sure, it’s no fleeting fad.

Personalized wellness represents a sweeping and likely lasting shift from the traditional top-down, one-size-fits-all nature of Western medicine. Though the term can be used in different ways, for our purposes, personalized wellness is a means of providing individually informed and precisely tailored care. It’s a puzzle-piece approach meant to match a person’s unique set of clinical data and diagnoses, lifestyle variables and preferences, and/or personal health goals. These collective factors are being tapped to develop a new generation of diet recommendations, exercise regimens, and stress management programs tailor-made for an audience of one.

Already, the landscape is rapidly changing with the widespread emergence of nutrition and wellness apps. And that’s just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Personalized wellness is growing increasingly specific on a cellular level. Since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, achieving the incredible feat of sequencing the entire human genome, we’ve just begun connecting the dots between individual genetic variations and personal health risk or disease resistance. Although the genome sequence is more than 99 percent identical in all humans, research shows that remaining fraction of a percent translates into thousands of potential genetic variations between different people. The possibilities for individualized genome-guided health and wellness solutions  is staggering to fathom, albeit premature to accurately predict.

What’s more, the Human Microbiome Project offers still another microscope lens through which to view personalized wellness. By creating a “representative blue-print” of the human microbiome, HMP has made it possible to explore and clarify our understanding of the interrelationship between an individual’s unique ecosystem of good and bad bacteria and his/her health vulnerabilities. While much remains unknown, research suggests that a person’s gut microbial metabolism and absorption with potentially powerful nutrition implications.

Products get personal

With consumer desire for customizations aligning with promising research, it’s no surprise that companies in several wellness-focused sectors are trending towards a personalized approach. From individualized meal plans and exercise monitoring devices to supermarket-crafted, shopper-tailored grocery lists, the marketplace is seeing an explosion in personalized wellness innovations.

Over the past decade, the amount and types of monitoring technologies have soared, with the introduction of the iPhone revolutionizing the industry in 2007. Since that time, wearable technology has allowed consumers to track various lifestyle metrics and personal progress in new and easy ways, and hundreds of thousands of apps have been developed that give users a window into their personal health status by tracking movement, nutrient intake, sleep and more.

Apple and FitBit, among others, have led the way to discovery of the “quantifiable self,” a term referring to the vast array of numerical health measurements that can be recorded and analyzed from an individual at any given time via wearable technologies. According to the International Data Corporation’s Worldwide Quarterly Wearables Tracker, the wearables industry has reached a value of $5.5 billion worldwide, and the market is expected to reach nearly $19.5 billion by 2021.

Personalized nutrition services are also experiencing rapid growth. Online nutrition and fitness programs, direct-to-consumer and direct-to-health professional genetic testing kits, disease-focused services, and microbiome analyses are all relatively new to the nutrition scene, and all promise technologies and experiences driven by the client’s or user’s goals, preferences and data. The personalized nutrition industry alone is poised to grow from an estimated $93 billion in 2015 to $127 billion in 2020, according to data presented at the 2018 Personalized Nutrition Innovation Summit in San Francisco.

Looking ahead

How “personalized” can we really become? What will the science of customization look like in five years? In 25 years? And how much evidence do we need before accepting various technologies to effectively address health needs? One thing is sure: opportunities abound in this new frontier. That’s why agencies like FoodMinds, a division of Padilla, are making personalized wellness a strategic focus area.

While more research is needed to elucidate the connections between our individual biochemistry, lifestyle choices and ultimate well-being, current knowledge gaps needn’t be a stopgap in continued progress. Building relationships with partners in medical and  nutrition science and policy can help drive future discovery and foster cross-sector collaboration. And though many new personalized tools may not be ready as stand-alone offerings, they certainly may signal inroads to more comprehensive solutions for today’s health and wellness consumer. With users continually contributing personal data to the field, researchers have a wealth of information to mine, and technology will get smarter quickly. It’s exciting to witness the dawn of this new industry, and even more exciting to consider opportunities to contribute to its bright future.

 

Ashley Desrosiers, MS, RD, is a vice president at FoodMinds, a division of Padilla, and leads the agency’s Personalized Wellness team. She is based in Boston, MA. 

Jean Owen Curran, MS, RD is an account supervisor at FoodMinds, a division of Padilla, and supports the Personalized Wellness team from the Chicago office. 

This article originally appeared in the March issue of O’Dwyer’s. View the full article here.