I filled out a diet survey from Sciona, a company whose website promises “professional genetic screening” that allows people to base “their most important health decisions” “not on fashion but on their own personal ‘inside’ story.” For several hundred dollars, a customer receives a report based on a detailed nutritional questionnaire and the results of a cheek swab that tests for 19 genes. I knew that I didn’t have the time for a genetic screening, but I did look forward to shocking a dietician.
Yael Joffe, however, the dietician in charge of designing Sciona’s questionnaires and correlating the results with the swab report, was far too sensible and nice to be shocked. She calmly assessed my diet, which is usually low in meats except when I taste through an entire menu, as I do a few times a month as a restaurant critic, and exceedingly high in sugar, owing to an insatiable sweet tooth.
Sciona tests only 19 genes whose variation can result in specific dietary recommendations, Joffe assured me, so its report is not a general assessment of a customer’s health. Its main areas of concern are heart health, bone health, inflammation, detoxification, and oxidative stress. She took me through each area, explaining the advice she would give me based on my answers and how it might change if I had a specific genetic variant. Unsurprisingly, the advice accorded strongly with common sense. And as someone who holds buying from farmer’s markets to be a God-given mandate, I was heartened to hear her say in every area that the first recommendation would be to increase (or decrease) consumption of a certain real food and only in the event of certain genetic variants to take supplements.
Such advice, of course, is far from a personalized diet based on nutritional genomics. In the same way that personalized medicine has been slow to emerge from pharmacogenomics, it’s likely to be a while before our genetic profiles will tell us exactly what to eat. For starters, nutritional geneticists will need far cheaper and faster genetic-screening tools.
Still, the makers of omega-3 and folic-acid supplements, and of calcium supplements for women, will be very pleased if messages like Sciona’s filter down to the public. My own biggest shock: that because I don’t drink soda, my extreme consumption of sugar doesn’t throw my entire diet out of whack. I’m a bit light on whole grains and the dread omega-3s – which, however, I was pleased to learn can be obtained not only through mackerel and sardines but also through the delightful-sounding flaxseed hot cereal. I’m ready to make Pascal’s wager, as Ray Rodriguez calls the proposition of following dietary advice. (Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French scientist and philosopher, argued that if erroneously disbelieving in God consigns you to hell, but erroneously believing in God has no consequences, it’s only rational to believe in God.) If flaxseed on the stove in the morning and sardines from the can at lunch are what will help me live healthier and longer, I’ll learn to like them. But I won’t give up sweets.
Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of such books as The Joy of Coffee and The Pleasures of Slow Food.