New wearable technology could soon track how your body responds to different foods, but will it solve your diet woes, asks nutritionist and public health researcher Janelle Kwon.
There’s good news if you have ever followed a diet to a T, only to notice barely any difference in how you look or feel. It’s not you – well, not exactly.
A new study published in Nature Medicine provided strong evidence for what researchers have suspected for some time – there is huge variability in the way that different people process foods, meaning a diet that works for one person may not work for another.
Growing research also suggests that one-size-fits-all diets may not be the best way to tackle healthy eating, and personalising what we eat based on individual characteristics could be much more effective.
But how do you know what your personalised diet should consist of?
As the saying goes, there’s an app for that – at least, there could be soon – and it will link to a smart ‘patch’ that monitors how your body responds to different foods to work out exactly what you should eat.
The world-first smart patch is being developed by the Australian med-tech start-up, Nutromics. The company claims it will help people personalise their diets and reduce their risk of developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes.
How does it work?
Worn on the skin, the patch is fitted with micro needles that painlessly penetrate the skin, allowing the interstitial fluid (that’s the fluid between your cells that contains all the nutrients your cells need) to be regularly tested for important biomarkers, such as glucose and cortisol. The biological information is transmitted to the user’s smartphone and converted into dietary advice using artificial intelligence.
“You wear the patch and take a picture of your meal, we then measure your response and we either say that meal is green: good for you, red: bad for you, or somewhere in between. Over time you will create a history and can quickly find out what are the good meals for you and what are the bad meals for you,” explains Peter Vranes, co-CEO of Nutromics.
Vranes sees the smart patch as the “next evolution” of wearable devices. “We’re going from activity tracking, like heart rate and steps, which have limited utility, to now biomarker molecular tracking, which opens up this whole new world of preventive health and personalisation”, he says.
“It gives you eyes ahead and where you are heading as a person. It measures the things that matter, regularly, and it can tell you where you are at. Once you know that, your ability to improve it is vastly greater.”
What does the research say?
The smart patch is so new that there isn’t yet published research reporting on the device’s effectiveness, but studies using a similar biologically personalised approach – although with much less frequent personal feedback – can provide an idea for the science behind the smart patch.
Dr Katherine Livingstone, Research Fellow at Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, says while personalised dietary approaches have potential, further research is needed.
“There is emerging evidence that personalised nutrition is more effective than generalised dietary advice, but I think we have a long way to go to unpick how that will work in practice,” she says.
Dr Livingstone was part of the research team that conducted the Food4Me study, the largest European randomised control trial of personalised nutrition to date. The study found that while personalised advice was more effective at improving diets than generalised advice, personalised advice based on biological information didn’t provide any additional benefit compared with that based only on dietary intake, similar to what you would receive from a dietician.
“It’s not yet clear if adding biological information to personalised nutrition advice makes it more effective, but gaining better understanding of human variability will help answer this question,” Dr Livingstone says.
Should I follow a personalised diet?
Those still eager to try the smart patch may have to hold tight for now. Vranes says the patch is currently undergoing on-body testing, and will hopefully be on the market in 18 months.
But Sydney-based Dietician and Nutritionist, Rachel Scoular, says for many people there is no need to overcomplicate or personalise their diets. She suggests that there are many evidence-based dietary habits that could be adopted now to improve our diets and health.
“I would recommend anyone to take a general look at their current diet and see where they can improve. Basic steps like making sure you are consuming enough fruit and vegetables, and eating healthy fats and whole grains will go a long way in improving your general health and wellbeing,” she says.
Scoular also warns that for some individuals, overly detailed and complex dietary information could lead to restrictive eating or a negative relationship with food.
She recommends keeping it simple and using an app like MyFitnessPal or even a notepad and pen to monitor your intake and track your progress.
“And, as always, it’s best to speak with a trusted healthcare professional or dietician before commencing any new diet.”
Janelle Kwon is a Registered Nutritionist and Public Health Nutrition Researcher. She holds a Bachelor of Food Science and Nutrition (Hons.), and a Master of Public Health. Follow Janelle @janellekwon_