Are broccoli or beetroot the best options for your health? Which foods are likely to cause the biggest glucose spikes or cholesterol surges in your blood?
Custom diets are the next frontier in nutritional science. Artificial intelligence (AI) plays a key role in helping each of us decide what to eat and what not to eat.
An ambitious program called Nutrition for Precision Health (NPH) has launched in the United States in January 2022. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave his $170 million funding to agencies across the country to conduct his five-year study of 10,000 participants.
CNN commended Holly Nicastro, program director of the NIH’s Division of Nutrition Research and NPH coordinator, for the purpose and scale of the project, and for helping AI come up with the best diet for every individual. We talked about how it can help our health.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: There’s already a lot of information out there about healthy eating. Why are the approaches different and what are the goals?
Holly Nicastro: There is a lot of conflicting information and no one-size-fits-all diet to stay healthy. NPH’s goal is to use AI to develop algorithms that predict an individual’s response to food and eating patterns.
Our approach is different because we look at a comprehensive set of factors not normally examined in nutritional science. It examines how psychology and social determinants of health influence an individual’s response to diet. Additionally, we study one of the largest and most diverse cohorts of participants for precision nutrition research.
CNN: Who are the participants?
Nicastro: NPH participants are recruited from the All of Us Research Program run by NIH. All of Us is inviting his million people across the United States to build one of the most diverse health databases of all time. Most participants come from groups hitherto underrepresented in biomedicine. All of our participants have provided information through surveys, electronic health records, biometric samples, and digital health technologies such as Fitbits. The diversity of the All of Us Research Program cohort allows NPH to examine factors such as age, gender, race, and ethnicity.
CNN: What data do you collect and how do you analyze it?
Nicastro: NPH incorporates three modules. Module 1 collects information about the normal daily diet of all participants. In module 2, a subset of the module 1 participant eats her three different diets chosen by the researchers. In module 3, a small and separate subset of participants from module 1 will participate in her two-week study at the research center. There, their food is carefully controlled by researchers.
Each module ends with a meal challenge test. Participants fasted overnight, ate a standardized breakfast meal or drink, and their responses, such as blood sugar levels, were monitored over several hours.
We use mobile photography apps and wearable devices that can passively capture information about what people are eating. Participants wear continuous glucose monitors and accelerometers that collect information on physical activity, sedentary time, and sleep. Researchers also analyze various biomarkers such as blood lipids and hormone levels, as well as the stool microbiome.
NPH research will link data from the All of Us program and use AI to analyze it. Unlike human researchers, AI can quickly sift through and process vast amounts of data, transforming the connections between data points into algorithms, so this approach could help move nutrition research towards personalized nutrition. create unprecedented opportunities to These can predict an individual’s response to food and dietary patterns, taking into account the role of genetic, protein, microbiome, metabolic, environmental and lifestyle factors.
CNN: Who will benefit most from a precision nutrition approach?
Nicastro: Some of the earliest direct benefits may be for those at risk of diabetes or those who have trouble regulating blood sugar levels. You can know how an individual’s blood sugar levels change after eating a food, food group, or meal, and you can predict their response based on individual characteristics. This will help you develop a coordinated plan to prevent large fluctuations in blood sugar levels.
We are also using precision nutrition approaches to see how well we can predict other responses to diet, such as changes in blood pressure, blood cholesterol or triglyceride levels, mood, and cognition.
CNN: What are we really eating? How can diet improve our health?
Nicastro: Poor diet is one of the leading causes of preventable illness and death worldwide and a major contributor to healthcare costs. Our diet affects our growth, development, disease risk and severity, and overall health. Worldwide, nearly 40% of adults are obese or overweight, more than 30% have high blood pressure, and other diet-related chronic diseases are on the rise. Recent studies show that one in five deaths can be attributed to poor diet. Improving our diet has the potential to change the health of the world.
If everyone followed population-wide guidance such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we would expect to see improvements. It focuses on limiting saturated fat, and sodium. However, this one-size-fits-all approach only gets you so far. Virtually all dietary and nutritional intervention studies show some degree of individual variability in participant response, and patients and consumers are increasingly demanding an individualized approach.
CNN: I’m sure! When will custom dietary advice be widely available to the general public?
Nicastro: Precision nutrition is already practiced. Clinicians will offer different recommendations based on someone’s disease profile, medical history, or health and wellness goals. It is very different from the recommendation for people with
Nutrition advice will become increasingly precise in the years to come. In the short term, we will use more data points to generate more customized recommendations. In the long term, we expect the predictors identified by NPH to be used by health professionals during standardized intake. This may involve getting patients to use new technologies, such as smart toilets, or doing simple genetic tests.
To fully understand the benefits of precision nutrition approaches, it is essential to study and address barriers to following dietary recommendations. A precise approach should focus not only on optimizing someone’s health, but on dietary recommendations that are easy for individuals to follow based on their resources, lifestyle, preferences, and abilities.