The Next Pseudoscience Health Craze Is All About Genetics

Recently, Vitaliy Husar received results from a DNA screening that changed his life. It wasn’t a gene that suggested a high likelihood of cancer or a shocking revelation about his family tree. It was his diet. It was all wrong.

That was, at least, according to DNA Lifestyle Coach, a startup that offers consumers advice on diet, exercise and other aspects of daily life based on genetics alone. Husar, a 38-year-old telecom salesman, had spent most of his life eating the sort of Eastern European fare typical of his native Ukraine: lots of meat, potatoes, salt and saturated fats. DNA Lifestyle Coach suggested his body might appreciate a more Mediterranean diet instead.

“They show you which genes are linked to what traits, and link you to the research,” Husar told Gizmodo. “There is science behind it.”

DNA Lifestyle Coach isn’t the only company hoping to turn our genetics into a lifestyle product. In the past decade, DNA sequencing has gotten really, really cheap, positioning genetics to become the next big consumer health craze. The sales pitch—a roadmap for life encoded in your very own DNA—can be hard to resist. But scientists are skeptical that we’ve decrypted enough about the human genome to turn strings of As, Ts, Cs and Gs into useful personalized lifestyle advice.

Indeed, that lifestyle advice has a tendency to sound more like it was divined from a health-conscious oracle than from actual science. Take, for instance, DNA Lifestyle Coach’s recommendation that one client “drink 750ml of cloudy apple juice everyday to lose body fat.”

“Millions of people have had genotyping done, but few people have had their whole genome sequenced,” Eric Topol, a geneticist at Scripps in San Diego, told Gizmodo. Most consumer DNA testing companies, like 23andMe, offer genotyping, which examines small snippets of DNA for well-studied variations. Genome sequencing, on the other hand, decodes a person’s entire genetic makeup. In many cases, there just isn’t enough science concerning the genes in question to accurately predict, say, whether you should steer clear of carbs.

“We need billions of people to get their genome sequenced to be able to give people information like what kind of diet to follow,” Topol said.

Husar stumbled upon the Kickstarter page for DNA Lifestyle Coach after getting his DNA tested via 23andMe a few years earlier. He wondered whether there was more information to be gleaned from his results. So six months ago, he downloaded his 23andMe data and uploaded it to DNA Lifestyle Coach. Each test costs between $60 and $70.

“I’m always looking for some ways to learn about my health, myself, my body,” said Husar, who contributed to the company’s Kickstarter back in 2015.

The advice he got back was incredibly specific. According to DNA Lifestyle Coach, he needed to start taking supplements of vitamins B12, D and E. He needed more iodine in his diet, and a lot less sodium. DNA Lifestyle Coach recommended that 55 percent of his fat consumption come from monounsaturated fats like olive oil, rather than the sunflower oil popular in Ukraine. Oh, and he needed to change his workout to focus more on endurance and less on speed and power.

He switched up his workout and his diet, and added vitamin supplements to his daily routine. The results, he found, were hard to dispute: He lost six pounds, and for the first time in memory didn’t spend Kiev’s long harsh winter stuck with a bad case of the winter blues.

For now, DNA Lifestyle Coach’s “interpretation engine” only offers consumers advice on diet and exercise, but in the coming months it plans to roll out genetics-based guidance on skin care, dental care and stress management. The company wants to tell you what SPF of sunscreen to use to decrease your risk of cancer, and which beauty products to use to delay the visible effects of aging. 

“People will one day use their own DNA data to help guide everyday experiences.”

DNA Lifestyle Coach joins a growing list of technology companies attempting to spin DNA testing results into a must-have product. The DNA sequencing company Helix plans to launch an “app store for genetics” later this year. One of its partners is Vinome, a wine club that for $149 a quarter sends you wine selected based on your DNA. Orig3n offers genetics-based assessments of fitness, mental health, skin, nutrition and even—obviously unscientific—which superpower you are most likely to have. The CEO of the health-focused Veritas Genetics hopes to create a “Netflix for genetics,” where consumers pay for a subscription to receive updated information on their genome for the rest of their life.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but we believe that DNA will become an integrated part of everyday life,” Helix co-founder Justin Kao said. “The same way people use data to determine which movie to see or which restaurant to eat at, people will one day use their own DNA data to help guide everyday experiences.”

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