“DNA Diets”: Miracle or Scam?
Q: I know that there are a ton of diet scams out there, but I’m hearing more and more about diets that are tailored to my genetics. Could my weight problems really be solved by eating in a way that suits my DNA? I’d love to believe there could be such a straightforward solution, but this sounds way too good to be true!
A: I have been known to yell at the television when I see an ad that promises a “quick fix,” “easy solution,” or a “miracle cure” for weight loss. I’m also quite skeptical when I consider how successful a purely biological or physiological treatment (like surgery or medication) might be for my patients who have a history of emotional eating and resultant difficulties with weight loss. So, to me, a “DNA diet” sounds like another one of these misguided “solutions” that is either totally bogus or only addresses one aspect of the problem.
In helping dozens of overweight individuals navigate their weight management journey, I have seen one consistency time and time again: the prescription for long-lasting weight loss success is always going to be more complex than a simple diet, a combination of foods, or directions for an exercise program. I like to say that the majority of the work happens between the ears, not between the lips. Thus, even if someone were given the eating plan perfectly tailored to optimize weight loss (as researchers at Harvard, Duke, and in Denmark are attempting), that person is not going to be able to follow it faithfully if she is still misusing food for emotional reasons (for comfort, out of boredom, to soothe, to numb, to socialize, etc.).
I apply similar logic when my patients ask me about the various weight loss medications that are currently under review by the FDA. These drugs in the pipeline aim to alter hormonal actions – specifically those of the hormones ghrelin and leptin – that regulate hunger and satiety. However, even if drugs were able to blunt hunger, I still don’t believe they would be effective weight loss agents for most folks. The vast majority of the people I treat did not gain weight because they were “too (physically) hungry.” They gained weight because they were eating for the emotional, psychological, and social reasons I mentioned above; this kind of food use is hardly ever related to the body’s physiological hunger cues.
So, do I think the research teams investigating the question of tailoring eating regimens to one’s genetic make-up are wasting their time? Not necessarily. Nothing frustrates me more than having a patient who is following an eating and exercise program religiously – and the scale doesn’t budge. I often see this happen for post-menopausal women, for example: metabolism has slowed so much that weight loss happens at an excruciatingly slow pace. My patients become frustrated by this perceived “failure,” and they stop engaging in the healthy behaviors that, if continued, would result in weight loss over time. So, if there were a particular food plan that would optimize weight loss for folks who are encountering these physiological barriers, then that would be helpful information for physicians, dietitians, and psychologists working with these weight-loss-resistant individuals. In sum, this kind of thing might have promise as another tool that weight loss professionals could use to help people meet their goals. But, even with these new advances, we have to couple the science with the knowledge that we humans are complex beings; no one-shot cure can stand in for a holistic approach to wellness.
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