The turning point came in September of this year, after traveling back from a Croatian vacation in yoga pants to hide my bloated tummy. Despite a summer of eating mostly plants and cutting back on wine — not to mention carrying around pre-measured nuts and dried edamame on my trip — I couldn’t make the scale budge and felt awful.
So when I heard about health-focused DNA tests — ones that promised to analyze your genes to decode which foods and workouts were best for your body — I was curious to see what insights would arrive after sending a tube of saliva in the mail.
I loved the idea that the science of genomics would offer clues about my body and free me from my DIY experiments of giving up entire food groups for 30 days or choking down probiotic sauerkraut. The category of direct-to-consumer genetic tests was exploding. And now, they offer more opportunities than ever to learn if I have a gene for speed, how I metabolize alcohol or caffeine or whether I’m likely to gain weight from eating too much bacon.
Health DNA Tests: The Limitations
Startups like Helix and Sequencing.com have recently created an app marketplace in which health companies can access your DNA data and offer insights. And last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it would streamline the approval process for tests that evaluate people’s predisposition for certain health conditions.
As the tests grow in popularity, critics have balked at some companies’ claims. They cite questionable leaps in translating DNA data into something meaningful for consumers. “There’s a lot of peddling stuff that’s of little value,” says Dr. Eric Topol of the Scripps Translational Science Institute. He explains that many of the insights rely on research that looks at single genetic variants, rather than the interplay of multiple genetic markers.
Also, the results of each test might not be consistent. Companies often look at different spots in your DNA and come to contradictory conclusions, adds Dr. Barry Starr, who works at Stanford University’s genetics department as the director of outreach activities. (Case in point: My 23andMe results indicated that I was more likely to weigh more than average. Three other tests predicted a normal BMI.)
“For something as important as your weight, I wouldn’t trust a consumer test for that,” says Starr, author of A Handy Guide to Ancestry and Relationship DNA Tests. “You’re going to get an incomplete picture that doesn’t include all the other genes and factors that influence your BMI.”
Still, I wanted to see if such DNA-powered health testing could help me feel better. So I researched five products with a genetic component and tried them out. Read on for what I learned.
5 DNA Tests That Offer Insight into the Diet and Exercise Plan for You
1. “Embody DNA” by Lose It! ($189)
Lose It! has been around since 2008 as a food- and activity-tracking app. In July, the company teamed up with genetic sequencer Helix to go deep on whether the foods you’re logging are your friends. The app reveals the likelihood of saturated fat or sugary beverages affecting your BMI, for example, or whether you’re more apt to excel at endurance sports or power activities.
Pros: The app monitors the foods you’ve logged to make sure they’re in line with your genetic tendencies. If your results show that you’re among the 18 percent of people who gain weight more when eating a high-fat diet, it will flag how many days you went over the recommended number of grams.
Cons: If you rank “average” like I did in most categories, the insights offer limited value. I did enjoy learning that I’m likely not to be lactose intolerant, so I’ve since ignored the warnings about the perils of dairy and started enjoying Greek yogurt again. I’m also skeptical about the finding that I’m part of the 43 percent of the world’s population for whom exercise doesn’t lead to weight loss, considering it’s well-established that most people can’t out-exercise a bad diet.
2. Ixcela ($299)
With this kit, you get the tools to prick your finger at home. Then you return a blood sample in the mail. A technician analyzes 12 microbial metabolites that the company has deemed essential to your gut health and compares them to typically normal levels. You receive five scores on gastrointestinal fitness, immunity, cognitive acuity, emotional balance and energetic efficiency.
With other tests, you have to provide a stool sample to get a clue about what’s happening in your gut — the state of which has been linked to your immune system, sleep, heart health and risk for chronic diseases. Yet co-founder Erika Angle says blood provides a better indication of your “internal fitness” biomarkers than what’s found in the large intestine.
Pros: After blindly taking probiotics to positively influence my microbiome, it’s reassuring to have a test to reveal what’s actually going on in there. And it’s a good way to put your gut health on your radar.
Cons: The actionable suggestions for each category resemble general health advice, such as eating fiber-rich, whole grain foods, as well as fish, olive oil, veggies, nuts and seeds and fermented foods like kimchi and yogurt. Oh, and I’m supposed to meditate daily, exercise several times a week and cut back drinking to improve my emotional well-being.
3. FitnessGenes ($219)
FitnessGenes analyzes more than 40 genes to give you a personalized workout plan and nutritional advice. The results provide detailed info, including whether you have the gene that clears lactic acid from your body quickly. You’ll also learn whether you have the genotype associated with producing the alpha-actinin-3 protein, which helps your muscles make the rapid, forceful contractions key for speed and power sports. (I don’t.) “It’s why two people can follow the same workout plan and get different results,” says co-founder Dr. Dan Reardon.
Pros: Your results come with nuanced explanations about how your genes work and in what context. A few things rang true for me: My genetic profile showed that my post-workout recovery is weaker than average, so I need to limit strength sessions to a couple times a week and rest longer in between reps. Also, I’m more prone to sleep disturbances, so I need to shut off my phone before bed.
Cons: The explanations are refreshingly honest about the state of the science. For example, my recs included: “You have one fast and one slow caffeine metabolism gene, so your metabolic speed could swing either way.” Yet it’s often unclear what to do with the information. (After telling Reardon that my morning coffee kicks in within seconds, he concluded that I’m a fast metabolizer. He suggested cutting back on joe before workouts to avoid an energy crash.)
4.EverlyWell’s Food Sensitivity+ ($329)
EverlyWell combines traditional food sensitivity testing with insights on your genetic likelihood to be lactose intolerant or produce certain vitamins and minerals. The food panel measures the immune system’s response to 96 foods that could cause intolerances and therefore, bloating or joint pain, among other symptoms.
Pros: Although the science behind the food intolerance test isn’t foolproof, it can clue you into what ails you. I found out I have issues with gluten, soy and cashews, and my bloating went away as soon as I stopped eating them. Also, if you learn you’re genetically predisposed to a magnesium deficiency, you might want to cross-reference your intolerances to make sure you’re not eliminating foods that contain high volumes of the mineral, explains Dr. Marra Francis, EverlyWell’s medical director.
Cons: The genetic component measures your risk of certain vitamin deficiencies. But it doesn’t actually look at the levels of those vitamins in your body.
5. Arivale ($999)
This is a wellness program that combines extensive genetic and inflammatory marker analysis with three coaching calls over a two-month period. The company sends you a Fitbit and a scale. And your coach monitors your MyFitnessPal account to offer advice on improving inflammation or eating more protein, for example. The genetic component rounds out the comprehensive approach by looking at what predisposes you to gain weight.
Pros: I loved working with coach Cassie Christopher who sent me Amazon links for Omega 3 supplements and gentle reminders, like “I noticed you haven’t been tracking your food lately.” I learned a lot of other information about myself, including the fact that I have slightly higher mercury levels and should therefore go easy on the spicy tuna rolls. I also have a gene that’s associated with periodontal disease, so I need to stay on top of flossing.
Cons: It’s pricey. After your initial trial runs out, you have the option of joining a membership program for $125 month. You can then get re-tested in six months. Also, it’s not obvious how some of the genetic information, like how you taste sweet or bitter foods, relates to weight.
My Post-Testing Overview
The science still has a long way to go, yet I was able make a few tweaks to my diet and exercise routine that helped me lose five pounds. I also discovered that despite one’s desire to discover what makes you unique, most of the insights included tried-and-true advice that applies to all of us: Don’t eat so much saturated fat. Exercise more. Watch your calorie intake. “It’s too early to take a lot of this health and fitness stuff seriously,” says Starr. “But as we learn more, the tests will get better and better at predicting which diets and exercise will work best for each individual.”