Two women of the same age eat a diet low in fruits and vegetables and high in sodium and saturated fat. One develops high blood pressure, high cholesterol and eventually heart disease, while the other lives a long life without such chronic disease.
Two experienced male power athletes of the same age take creatine for eight weeks and follow the same resistance training program. At the end of eight weeks, one has gained three pounds of muscle and the other has gained none.
Thousands of athletes show significant increases in speed and endurance when ingesting caffeine before exercise, while others show no effect.
When we study diet and disease or supplements and performance, why do the observed outcomes, such as those mentioned above, have mixed results? Only over the last few years has this mystery started to unravel.
In 2003, after 13 years of research, scientists conducting the Human Genome Project (HGP) decoded the 6 billion letters that sequence our DNA. The discovery — which included the identification and mapping of 20,000 to 25,000 genes — has led to an extraordinary revolution in medical research. While much of the research to date has focused on how genetics relate to illness and disease, the findings have also given the athletic world a glimpse into the exciting future of high-performance sports training and nutrition.
Over 300 genes relevant to health and fitness have been identified. These genes range from those affecting cardiovascular endurance, muscle power and strength to those related to heart rate, body composition, blood pressure and metabolic factors, such as how the body clears lactic acid and uses carbohydrates and fats.
Along with the identification of these exercise-related genetic characteristics, there is evidence that specific genetic profiles may be very responsive to one particular type of exercise program and nonresponsive to another. In a nutshell: By incorporating an ultra-personalized training program designed to work with one’s unique genetic makeup (and taking environmental factors into consideration), one can increase the ability to reach one’s full athletic potential.
Not only is this an exciting time for exercise physiologists and strength and conditioning coaches, but nutritional physiologists and sport dietitians are also keen to implement new assessment technologies and nutritional strategies originating from these genetic findings. While it’s long been suspected that genetics plays a critical role in determining how a person responds to foods and nutrients, only recently has research in the emerging field of “nutrigenomics” been able to scientifically demonstrate this fact.
Nutrigenomics is the study of how genetic differences can affect the way our bodies absorb, metabolize and utilize nutrients — and why the interaction of our genes with certain food components can influence our health and nutritional status. “Eat according to your genes” takes “personalized nutrition” to a whole new level. In fact, the excitement surrounding nutrigenomics stems from the notion that it’s the foundation for individually tailored diets and supplement regimes that will take into account one’s unique sports goals and genotype to allow more precision in optimizing sport performance.
Creating the necessary tools to develop personalized programs using evidence-based science from the emerging area of personalized and population-level genetic research will allow sports science professionals and practitioners to collaborate in a paradigm shift that will improve our current multidisciplinary team approach for achieving optimal health, fitness and athletic performance.
Once personalized nutrition is integrated into routine practice, we can better predict efficacy of various training diets and aids, determine risks for nutrient deficiencies and help athletes choose the right supplements to optimize health and performance. When it comes to high-performance sports, this emerging science is the nutritional competitive edge of our future.