When it Comes to Nutrition & Lifestyle: One Size Fits Does NOT Fit All.
by Kiki Athanas
January 21, 2018
Meet Gini. A personal health & fitness assistant powered by your genetic code.
But first: allow me to introduce Gurjot Narwal, the founder of this life-changing (and quite possibly, life-extending) app.
Imagine a life where you’re not forever bombarded with conflicting evidence of “eat this, not that”, “exercise like this, not like that”, “live here, not there”.
As soon as you feel like you’ve got a handle on the “right” thing to do: Eat keto, do HIIT, live in warm and sunny climate - BOOM our connected and social-media driven world jumps on another fad and suddenly you’re at a loss.
My favourite example of this are those famous wellness influencers that were once strictly plant-based #vegansofIG and now seem to hold bone broth up in gold chalices.
No shame, we all deserve the space to change our minds and follow what serves us moment-to-moment. With that said, it’s becoming more and more apparent that people are becoming incredibly confused and sadly demovated about what “optimal nutrition” looks like. As we become more aware and interested in diet and nutrition, it seems we also become more confused. Even as someone who lives and breathes in this space, I’m the first to admit it can be extremely overwhelming.
Enter Gurjot, an engineer by trade, coming from a successful background in consulting, who’s on a mission to empower us to breakthrough the high-level “advice” aimed at the masses, and instead enable us to understand what’s right for each of us as complex individuals.
After tragically losing a young friend to cancer - one of the saddest moments of his life - Gurjot realized that above all else, he wanted to do something that would help people live longer.
After years of working in the technological and engineering space, he began connecting with a few of his friends in the medical field, as well as contacts working in biochemistry and genetics research. One thing became crystal clear: from all of the top things that are killing humanity (e.g. heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc.), 80% of of those things are preventable. It boils down to having good nutrition and lifestyle.
And so, in 2012, he become hyper-interested in that field, and decided to take on the challenge.
Today, Gurjot is leading the team at Gini Health, which combines your genes, the latest research and your day-to-day actions to give you a holistic picture of your health. Talk about smart care!
I’ve spoken about intuitive and mindful eating before, and I’d like to hold a place for this in what follows - whatever your dietary and lifestyle approach, it needs to be done to fuel YOU as an individual - body, mind, and soul. After experiencing varied “success” from just about every diet Googleable, it’s refreshing to hear that it’s not me - or rather, it is exactly me (i.e. my DNA) that could be in charge of what works vs. what doesn’t.
The topic of personalized nutrition based on your DNA is certainly a great one, and admittedly too “scientifically advanced” for me to depict in its entirety, so I’m going to dumb-it-down in this post - for your sake as much as mine.
Here’s what Gini is all about:
Simple explanations of the risk factors that are relevant to you
In-depth recommendations to help you manage any risk
Based on the latest peer-reviewed research by the most trusted sources
And oh yes, I’ve drank the Gini kool-aid.
In fact, I ordered my own 23andMe kit - not for the ancestry services, but simply to become one of Gini’s beta testers in exchange for personalized data about what helps ME thrive.
Gurjot explains the importance of this sort of information in the wake of trending diets that can actually cause us more harm than good. For instance, while a keto diet may be particularly health-promoting for most people, the particular way it is followed is of utmost importance based on your genetic makeup.
You can read more about how to make a ketogenic diet safer and more effective by personalizing it to your genes in his own blog post on the topic here.
It’s worth noting that Gurjot’s approach to optimizing your diet is empowering and extremely optimistic - not a “cut this, avoid that” way...but moreover it’s clear his mission is to inspire you to make better choices that ultimately work more efficiently for your own body.
While the concept of personalized nutrition and genetic testing for optimal diet planning may scream the exact opposite of intuitive eating, I beg to differ. In fact, I think it’s really supportive of learning to live and love your own way.
Gurjot agrees: “Genetics can tell you the likelihood of certain predispositions to nutrition deficiencies, weight gain and metabolic diseases. But it also matters if those genes are expressed or not. If genes are not expressed then they may not perform their intended functions. Now technology is getting better and cheaper to check your gene expression (RNA), but even before that you can validate your intuitions and how you feel just based on your genotype. It'll also help you to understand things you may know intuitively but are important for your body.”
Wouldn’t it be great to officially banish your shame about particular lifestyle choices you follow which otherwise go against popular “trends”, with cold hard evidence that YOUR way is the best for YOU?! I think so.
For instance, Gurjot explains that some people have a genetic advantage for increased intrinsic motivation exercise, and do it consistently. There's a brain-derived neurofactor gene (BDNF) that is responsible for greater increase in the positive mood and lower perceived exertion during exercise.
There's also another gene COMT that controls the response to the pain signals. Some people may have lower pain tolerance while working out or running. Some strategies like deep breathing or changing negative thoughts to positive thoughts can be applied to reduce the pain tolerance.
With all of this said, most of you reading this will still want a bit of that high-level advice and nutritional tips and tricks we can easily pocket for ourselves. So I couldn’t help but ask Gurjot his dietary recommendations based on what he sees most often, and some strategies we may all benefit from…
Here are Gurjot’s top 3 nutrition tips:
"First of all I would recommend to use Gini to personalize your nutrition based on the latest research. If I have to give general nutrition tips for all ages then they will be based on repairing the DNA damage that will help in improving the life of our cells, reducing inflammation as well as the common nutrition deficiencies that occur in the population."
1. Vitamin D
A super important hormone as it controls the expression of almost 900 genes of total 20,000 genes, that is 4.5% of total genome. Vitamin D is key for longevity as lower Vitamin D levels are linked to higher all cause mortality. It's crazy that we have over 70% people deficient in Vitamin D in North America. In Canada, multiethnic and diverse communities like east asians and south asian ancestry individuals have even higher risk of this deficiency. Make sure to check your Vitamin D level through blood test and try to maintain at 50 ng/ml through sunlight, food or supplements.
An essential cofactor in DNA and protein synthesis and biochemical metabolism. Almost 50% of the population in North America is deficient in magnesium. Spinach, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, quinoa, epsom salt bath are some of the good sources to get around 400 microgram of daily magnesium.
3. Fatty Acids
Vital for controlling inflammation and brain functions. In North America omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is really out of whack. While getting omega 3 is very important, it's important to know about the variation of your FADS gene too. Some people have lower efficiency of converting omega 3s or Alpha Linoleic Acid (ALA) to DHA and EPA. This variation is especially important for vegetarian people, if they don't eat fish or fish oil then they should consider having micro-algae oil.
Of course, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably writing up a list of pills for your next health food store run: STOP!
Gurjot wants to make another thing very clear:
Natural foods > Supplements.
This is essentially because there is so much diversity in our gut, and thus the more diverse foods serve us best when it comes to our microbiome.
Gurjot explains, “Diversity in the species of microbes or bacteria in the gut is the indicator of health. Diverse diet helps to form and maintain the diverse gut microbiome. Unfortunately in the last 50 years diversity has been reduced in the diet especially in the west.”
While supplements are not useless, nor a “bad” thing to do, you should think of popping vitamin pills as the minimum thing you should do in order to nourish your body with that particular nutrient - instead, turn to food.
And not just any food, Gurjot explains: organic is key.
Conventional and intensive agriculture practices for rapid growth and bigger size of crops end up depleting soil in many nutrients and also result in the reduction of formation and uptake of nutrients by the plants. Organic farming practices with crop rotation are much better for enriching soils with nutrients and produce healthy plants. Gurjot is a big fan of farmers' markets especially the small to mid size organic farmers. He also built a portal www.basqet.com to bring organic food from Toronto's farmers' markets online through a portal , which he wants to make mainstream with a right model at the right time. Currently all his energy is focused on www.Ginihealth.com.
Another topic item I wanted Gurjot’s insights on is our mitochondria.
After reading Dave Asprey’s Head Strong and Dr. Mercola’s Fat for Fuel, which essentially takes the mitochondrial-boosting Bulletproof diet to an even more healing level with the Metabolic Mitochondrial Therapy nutritional protocol, I’ve become hyper aware of the importance of these powerhouses when it comes to our overall health - from moment-to-moment energy and alertness to overall longevity in old age and combating degenerative diseases.
So what are mitochondria anyways? To put it simply, they are the powerhouses of our cells. They are “organelles” that act like a digestive system which takes in nutrients, breaks them down, and creates energy rich molecules for the cell. Or, as Gurjot puts it, they convert food’s energy into energy for your body.
“Mitochondria is key in enhancing the exercise performance by using oxygen to produce ATP. To avoid muscle fatigue you need to have more ATP production than ATP reduction. When you exercise, new mitochondria's are formed and they need magnesium to copy the genome. If you are not getting enough magnesium in your diet then your exercise performance may suffer.
Currently, approximately 55% of our population is deficient in magnesium. Based on the genotype, some people may have a higher risk of magnesium deficiency. Personalized nutrition plays a big role in determining magnesium, calcium, vitamin D and Vitamin k levels, as they all are very closely related, especially for bone mineral density.”
While gut health is certainly of utmost importance and the microbiome is becoming the new “it” thing sweeping the world of diet & nutrition (think how trendy probiotics, bone broth, collagen, etc. have become this past year - all healing for the gut): I actually see mitochondrial healthgaining more limelight in this year’s upcoming wellness trends.
Last but not least, I was looking forward to Gurjot’s thoughts on fasting, as Intermittent Fasting (IF) is something I have been practicing over the past few years (most often following a 16:8 protocol) and I even hosted my very first “Fasting Retreat” with Megan Ramos from the Intensive Dietary Management Clinic last year.
"Time restricted eating and intermittent fasting is great for fat loss and as well for cell repair mechanism. There are two important points to consider with that. Circadian hormonal rhythm plays a great role in how the time of eating is important in controlling hunger and insulin production. Exactly the same food produces different insulin response in the body when eaten at different times in a day. It's counter intuitive, but hunger is lowest in the morning or after waking up, so in time restricted eating it's easier to avoid to not eat in the morning or after you wake up. Our genetic makeup can determine the different circadian rhythms at an individual level. On a normal circadian rhythm, it makes sense to eat your biggest meal during mid-day while following a time restricted eating regime."
There is obviously SO much that personalized nutrition can do for us, and I find it one of the most exciting topics sweeping the health & wellness world. With that said, what I find most encouraging, and what I hope you can take-away from reading this post, is that we're all different.
Reading up on the latest and greatest diet trend may not serve you as intended, so please be careful and above all else: listen to YOUR body before you blindly follow high-level nutritional advice that may very well do more harm than good.