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Customized Diets
May 7, 2015   
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Two young branches of science, nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics, help scientists design new food products and diets tailored to the needs of senior citizens and people at risk of developing medical problems caused by their diet.

Research into the molecular mechanisms of food engineering could have a major impact on what we eat. In Poland, such research is conducted by the Department of Food Biochemistry and Nutrigenomics at the Lodz University of Technology’s Institute of Technical Biochemistry.

Derived from molecular biology, nutrigenomics aims to identify the effect bioactive components of food have on genes, or more specifically, on gene expression, which is the synthesis of RNA and proteins based on genetic information. Bioactive food components include vitamins, polyphenols, carotenoids, unsaturated fatty acids and many other natural compounds. From the perspective of nutrigenomics, these are signal molecules that transfer external information into cells and affect gene expression. The Department of Food Biochemistry and Nutrigenomics studies how these compounds work.

Nutrigenetics is a branch of genetics that identifies and studies minor genetic differences between individual people. Slight as they are, such differences are responsible for the susceptibility of some people to obesity and other diet-related medical problems. Companies encourage people to test themselves for such individual genetic differences. However, this is a highly complicated matter and the differences are very hard to identify. They can be roughly divided into single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) and copy number variations (CNV). Single-nucleotide polymorphisms have been well researched and some of them can be identified with genetic tests. Studies on copy number variations, in turn, began only recently and these differences are possibly more important than SNPs.

The growing interest in nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics is a result of the serious risks presented by diet-related diseases. While there is no single obesity gene, or even a group of genes that make us gain weight, obesity is nevertheless a condition of genetic origin. The human genome comprises 25,000 genes, many of which can take alternative forms called alleles. When several dozen genes are present as certain alleles, the risk of developing obesity increases, making a person with such alleles more susceptible to risk arising from a high-calorie diet and insufficient physical activity. Trying to identify the genes and alleles that form the genetic basis of obesity and other metabolic diseases is neither an easy nor a fast process. Currently available tests allow for the identification of no more than 20 gene variations and in reality, they are more of a fad than a rational method of counteracting the risk of obesity.

The homo sapiens species evolved 150,000-200,000 years ago and for most of that time people lived differently than they do at present. In the past 10,000 years, people chose a settled way of life, started to grow crops and breed animals. Our diets and lifestyles have changed dramatically and contemporary people eat more carbohydrates and fats than before while being less physically active. Meanwhile, the human genome changes much slower than diets and lifestyles. Nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics might help devise different kinds of diets for specific individuals and risk groups, but at the end of the day, they cannot become a magical cure for obesity, type-2 diabetes and other diet-related diseases.

Maria Koziołkiewicz
Institute of Technical Biochemistry
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