By Andria Kades

23 Dec 2021 — Researchers at the University of Copenhagen are developing a personalized dietary profile that can tell individuals what is good and bad for them to eat, depending on their health status.

The researchers at the Food Science department expect their project to be applicable for people suffering from asthma, as well as a range of inflammatory diseases such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. If successful, the method could be used in the health care system. 

“Instead of treating diseases, we will be able to move toward the treatment of individuals by changing the largest environmental factor, namely the diet,” lead researcher on the project, associated professor Morten Arendt Rasmussen, tells NutritionInsight.

“The future development will be toward deep individual characterization through technology on the one hand and better knowledge on the role of the gut microbiome and genetics on the turnover of specific diets and the resulting impact on the body on the other hand. Collectively, that will prompt knowledge on what is problematic as well as the solutions.”

Associate Professor Morten Arendt Rasmussen at the computers at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen. Credit: Lene H. Koss

Genetics complicating personalization
According to the researchers, the healthcare field is already familiar with personalizing medicine but personalized diet is more complex. 

“In medical treatment, personalization is typically tied to the individual’s own genetics. You know the mechanisms for how a given medication works in relation to the host person’s genes and in relation to a specific disease. Thus, you can choose the correct medication and dose. But with diet, it becomes more complex because there are several factors at play,” Rasmussen says.

Personalized diet, as opposed to medicine, requires the use of two types of genetics. These are cell genetics as well as metagenetics – genetics found in the intestinal microbiome. 

Metagenetics are the personal composition of bacteria found in the gut and all the enzymes they contribute to digestion, he explains.

“In both genetic systems, enzymes are produced that are involved in the way we digest food, which is important to consider when you want to know what impact the diet has on our health.”

Starting from scratch
The research is still in its early stages and has received a grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation. More than 300 young people are participating in the project who are part of the Danish COPSAC project – Copenhagen Prospective Studies on Asthma in Childhood.

They have been thoroughly studied since infancy, with knowledge that is included in the model being developed. All participants have a mother who has asthma. 

“In the cohort, there are some who are overweight and some who have eczema and asthma that compromise their quality of life. If we can examine their metabolism and determine whether there are any dietary components that aggravate their illness or that they may be missing that would help them to improve their health, then it will be a huge gain – both for them and for society,” Rasmussen underscores.Personalized nutrition is fast growing across the nutrition space, as technology allows for more data collection.

“Perhaps with this research, we can determine whether young adulthood is a cardinal time to change dietary habits, as the participants are finished with puberty but are only just about to step into adulthood. What happens if you optimize your diet at this age – we want to find that out to relieve, postpone or completely avoid a life that is compromised by diseases.”

Data availability
A key driver behind the project is the falling cost of doing this kind of research. 

“Optimally, we just need to know age, height, weight and gender to create a personal diet profile. But this is probably too optimistic an assumption, and to develop an effective Point of Care method, we will probably also need genetic information, which can be obtained from a hair sample (DNA) and a stool sample (intestinal microbiome), and then it will be more costly.”

“But we find ourselves in a time where you can get these two types of information for a few hundred US dollars. So, if you imagine that you are dealing with individuals who are highly motivated to make a dietary change for the benefit of their health, then the figures are not astronomical,” Rasmussen underscores.

As part of the study, two methods will be used. The first will be standardized, where participants will have three to four minutes to consume food high in fat and sugar. Individuals will remain sedentary so as not to aid metabolism and researchers will take regular blood and urine samples to follow the development of the digestive period.

The second method will be observational, where participants will decide themselves what they wish to eat but take pictures to send to researchers and will have a sensor to measure their blood glucose levels. 

With all the data, the researchers will set up a model that can be used to create individualized diet recommendations based on knowing the individual’s genetics via a DNA test and metagenetics from a stool sample, plus gender, age, height and weight. 

“Netflix for food”
A long-term goal is to create a recommendation system for personalized diet, akin to a Netflix-like food system.

“Netflix is based on a recommender system. You evaluate whether the film you are watching is good or bad, and after some time, the system – which now knows your preferences – will recommend new films to you,” says Rasmussen.

“You can imagine that the films are the foods and that the 1-5 stars assess your personal glucose level in the blood immediately after consuming the recommended foods. Then you will be able to learn which foods are good and bad for you.”

Though this idea is not part of the current project, the nutrition industry is seeing technology making a huge impact in enabling greater levels of personalization.