Andrew Chan, MD, MPH, a Stuart and Suzanne Steele MGH Research Scholar, discusses why a personalized diet may have long-term advantages over standard nutritional guidelines.

Macrobiotic, paleo, Mediterranean — it seems like there’s a nutrition plan for everyone these days. But is there an advantage to a personalized diet?

New research conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital and Kings College London suggests there might be. Early results from the PREDICT study, which tracked diet and health data from 1,100 volunteers in the US and UK, found substantial differences in the way individuals respond to food. Even identical twins don’t process and metabolize fats and carbohydrates the same way.

PREDICT co-investigator Andrew Chan, MD, MPH, chief of the Clinical and Translational Epidemiology Unit, director of Cancer Epidemiology at the Mass General Cancer Center, and a Stuart and Suzanne Steele MGH Research Scholar 2017-2022, recently discussed the team’s findings and why a personalized diet may have long-term health benefits.

We have an opportunity here to capitalize on other innovations in health care.

What is the big takeaway from the first phase of the study?

The study suggests our body’s metabolic responses to food are highly individualized and that our genes are only partly responsible. This suggests that there are limitations to a one-size-fits-all approach to diet. By individualizing dietary assessment and recommendations, rather than relying solely on population-based guidelines, we may be able to better use diet to help prevent chronic diseases.

What accounts for the difference between individuals?

A person’s reaction to certain foods is the result of the interplay between what they eat and the bacteria that normally reside in their intestines, also known as the gut microbiome. By looking at diet in isolation without considering these interactions, we’re not getting the full picture. We know that diet influences the type of bacteria that proliferate in the gut, for example. It also affects the function of those bacteria and what they are able to produce. It is likely that the interaction between what we eat and these bacteria has a very important influence on overall health.

Andrew Chan, MD, MPH, MGH Research Scholar
Andrew Chan, MD, MPH

What does this mean for current dietary guidelines?

Our work isn’t designed to replace those guidelines, which remain useful for the vast majority of the population. For instance, it’s clear that diets high in concentrated sweets and trans fats are harmful, and all of us should limit our intake of foods high in these ingredients. But there is less certainty about the relative balance of other macronutrients, such as fat, protein and carbohydrates, that each of us derives our calories from. The combination of these dietary components could be optimally adjusted for a given individual in a way that might maximize downstream health benefit.

How do you foresee personalized diet becoming part of general medicine?

We have an opportunity here to capitalize on other innovations in health care. Many people now rely on wearable devices and smartphones to guide and track health measures, such as physical activity and sleep. I think diet represents the next frontier for this paradigm. Wearable technology can also be leveraged to help us assess the food that we’re putting into our bodies. This information can in turn be used with other biological assessments to provide real time feedback for us to tailor our diet to maximize those metabolic effects that are beneficial and minimize those that may be harmful.

The support I’ve received as an MGH Research Scholar provided me with the flexibility and latitude to jumpstart this inquiry.

How has Mass General contributed to the PREDICT study? 

One of the real strengths of Mass General is our diverse patient population, which has provided us an opportunity to consider how to best capture feedback from a wide range of patients and individuals in our community. This data has been key for developing the second phase of our study as we expand our efforts into other communities throughout the U.S.

How has philanthropy played a role in your work?

It has been absolutely critical for our research. This notion of individualizing diet and the role of the gut microbiome for disease prevention is relatively new and many funding agencies are often view this type of work as too “high risk” for traditional support. The support I’ve received as an MGH Research Scholar provided me with the flexibility and latitude to jumpstart this inquiry.

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