Can a DNA test tell you how to eat, how to train and how to achieve maximum health? When I heard about a service to evaluate various fitness-related health factors based on genetics, I was fascinated. The great team at DNAFit provided me a spectrum of their genetic reports so that I could review the service for my fitness blog.
The process of DNA analysis
The first step in the process is to provide a DNA sample. I received a kit in the mail which basically contained a cotton swab that I used to scrape off some cells from the inside of my cheeks. Then I placed it inside the provided plastic tube and mailed it back to the DNAFit labs. I didn’t initially realize that DNAFit is located in England, but it didn’t prove to be a problem. International shipping was only about $12. And the turnaround time for results was a few days longer.
All about genes
The DNAFit reports do a good job in giving background and information relevant to the results. I’m new to this kind of science and testing, so I wanted to do a little more homework to understand it better.
As you know, your body is composed of trillions of cells, providing structure to the body, converting nutrients obtained from food into energy and carrying out specialized functions (source: Genetics Home Reference).
Each cell has a nucleus which serves as the cell’s command center, directing the cell to grow, mature, divide or die. It also houses your DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) which provides the blueprint for performing these functions. DNA contains four basic building blocks (called “bases”) – adenine (A), cystosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). Similar to the way the order of letters in the alphabet can be used to form a word, the order of bases in a DNA sequence forms genes. Genes are the language that tells the cell how to make proteins. Humans have over 20,000 different kinds of genes. (source: livescience).
The whole human family is one species with the same genes. Whenever cells divide, a new copy of the DNA is created. Mutations are “typos” in the new DNA and occur quite frequently. They manifest as a substitution of one base for another. Usually these mutations are corrected by the cell, but some mutations persist and are passed along to offspring. So you have gene variations passed along to you by both of your parents. Another name of the gene variations is “allele”. These small differences in DNA sequence make every individual unique. They account for the variation we see in human hair color, skin color, height, shape, behavior, and susceptibility to disease. Individuals in other species vary too, in both physical appearance and behavior (source: Genetic Science Learning Center). Through gene testing, an individual’s specific mutations can be identified.
For instance, mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are known to increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and analysis of these genes in a genetic test can reveal whether a person has these mutations.
Another example is the CYP1A2 gene, it regulates a cell’s ability to produce the CYP1A2 enzyme which affects the liver’s ability to metabolize caffeine. Another gene, AHR, also plays a role in that it regulates the turning on and off of the CYP1A2 gene. 10% of the population are rapid caffeine metabolizers and thus not very caffeine sensitive.
Hundreds of studies have been done to determine correlations between genes and human attributes. The researchers at DNAFit have narrowed these down to studies that show how genetics impact an individual’s diet and fitness.
DNAFit has three different options for you to purchase – a Fitness report, a Diet report or a Diet/Fitness combination report. Depending on how much information you want, prices range from around $199 to $299. For the purpose of this review, I obtained the combination.
Here are the specific items included in each report (text from the online reports):
This report is only online. You have the ability to compare your results to one of three Olympic athletes - Greg Rutherford, Craig Pickering, or Andrew Steele. Since DNAFit is England-based, these are English athletes, but you get a good idea how you might compare genetically to a world-class athlete.
A simple, graphical summary of your genetic testing results and application.
For a nominal fee, you can purchase a genetically-adjusted meal planner.
100 Day Fat Burner Program
Their website says "Built from long established sport science principles, made truly personal using a key ingredient – your DNA, the 100-day Fat Burner programme is made for you, and only you." This option wasn't available when I used the service, so I can't weigh in on it. It costs about $190 for the 3-month program.
100 Day Muscle Builder Program
Their website says "Using the world’s first and only proven genetic training algorithm, the 100 Day Muscle Builder uses unique insights from your own DNA to tailor you programme on the most personal level possible." This option wasn't available when I used the service, so I can't weigh in on it. It costs about $190 for the 3-month program.
I was really excited to obtain my individualized reports. What new insights could I learn about myself? I was notified through email when they were ready. Logging in to the DNAFit portal, you are brought to a landing page that includes the reports you purchased. The reports are provided in three different formats – online, as a downloadable PDF and a summary infographic. You also get a meal planner, and an offer to consult with an expert for an additional fee.
I’ll admit that the information initially felt a bit overwhelming. I scanned through it a few times both in the printed and online reports and realized that it would take a while to digest.
I noticed that the online and PDF reports include the same results, but have different ways to present them. For example, here is what the online Fitness report looks like:
So you have the three bars summarizing the results, and you can click on specific items below to drill down into the result. I’ll use the “Power Endurance Profile” as an example of what information is included and how it is presented. Here is what my online Power Endurance Profile looks like:
The top of the report gives the summary – 81% Endurance, 19% Power. Then it gives a list of genes, results and effects. Basically, the genes are your genes that were tested and the results are your specific alleles for the genes (see my explanation of alleles under the “mutations” section above). Effect is basically how much of an effect having your specific allele has on your performance profile. A dash means it has no effect, a single dot means some effect and two dots means a strong effect. For example, if you notice in the image, most of mine have no effect. But ACTN3 has a strong effect. If you click on the “Learn more” button, you get this explanation:
My allele, “CC” is highlighted, along with an explanation of what it means. On the left it gives the name of the gene – “Alpha Actinin 3” and explains that it is “associated with major structural component of the fast twitch fibres of skeletal muscles. Only present in fast twitch muscle fibres.” Further for my “CC/RR” allele it states that “strength, speed and power gene combination (found in sprint athletes). Likely to increase benefit from explosive style training.”
This particular result is a little puzzling, since the summary says my genetic profile leans more towards endurance than power, and this particular gene/allele pair implies that my fast twitch muscle fibers have a combination of strength, speed and power that would be found in sprint athletes. But reading on down the report there are four other genes that were tested that also have an impact on the overall assessment. It turns out that ALL of those contribute to a more positive response to endurance training and activity for me personally.
There were a couple of other differences between the online and PDF reports that should be noted:
Applying the information
So how do I use this information? The people at DNAFit have tried to present the results in various ways for you to understand and potentially apply them. You don’t really need to dig through all of the specific gene/allele combinations – the results are all pretty clearly summarized in text and graphs.
For example, as shown above my Power/Endurance graph says 19% Power and 81% Endurance, along with the following explanation:
Endurance training is defined as lower intensity activity, performed for a longer period time. Power training is identified as high intensity exercise performed quickly, but over shorter time periods. We have collated your body’s response to key genes associated with either power or endurance training to create the below summary of where your genetics lie on the spectrum.
It is important to note that this result should not change your sporting or fitness goal - rather it should help you understand how best for you to reach that goal, by taking advantage of your genetic pre-disposition. Training in purely one way, be it all endurance or all power without a balance between the two can often have a negative impact, so make sure you give yourself some variation no matter what your power/endurance profile.
I have to admit that I’m a moderately heavy, muscular guy. If you asked me whether I personally prefer power vs. endurance, I’d say I lean towards power. Attempts in my past to distance run or do prolonged cardio activity have definitely not been enjoyable. But there’s the rub…just because I enjoy doing power-oriented training doesn’t mean I’m necessarily genetically predisposed towards power, even if I’m currently better at it and enjoy it more.
The Power/Performance explanation given above seems a little vague and doesn’t really feel “actionable”. I’m not going to give up strength training in favor of cardio. I do include cardio in my workouts, but I would say that my current balance is 60% strength and 40% cardio. And the only form of cardio I currently enjoy much is spinning. But an interesting feature of the online report is the addition of questions from people regarding their reports and answers from the DNAFit team. I noticed questions regarding how to interpret the results, and the DNAFit team gave the following responses:
There is no evidence that genetic testing can be used to determine talent or optimum event. Instead, they tell us what type of training works best to enable us to meet our goals. So, if you're 70% endurance, you should spend 70% of your training time doing endurance based training (higher volume, lower intensity), and 30% doing power based training (lower volume, higher intensity).
You don't necessarily have to stop doing weight training if you don’t want to - you could still do moderate weight/high repetition training such as 3 x 15, or circuit training, for your endurance component.
So the genetic testing doesn’t try to tell you which type of physical activity you should do, but more what approach you should take to training in general. So for me, I’ll probably keep my cardio the same, but in my strength training I’ll try to incorporate more high-rep, lighter weight exercises. Theoretically my body reacts better to this kind of training, so I’ll try it and see what happens.
I’m also slightly a skeptic at heart, so rather than just accepting the 80/20 results and modifying my behavior blindly, I plan to drill down to the specific gene/allele combinations and review some of the scientific research myself. While I believe the suggestions from the DNAFit team, it’s nice that I have the specific genetic results that I can use to identify research to learn and draw my own conclusions.
The above Power vs. Endurance example is just one of around 19 areas that are tested and reported. For each area, you can dig pretty much as deep as you want.
I like the high-level infographic included that sumvvmarizes all of the results:
Some results are obvious – like I already knew that I’m not gluten sensitive or lactose intolerant. But others are more interesting, with recommendations for me to incorporate more Omega-3, Vitamin B and D in my diet for optimum health. I’m glad that my need to consume cruciferous vegetables is average, because although I eat them, I don’t enjoy them. On the fitness side, it indicates that my recovery speed is medium, but that my risk for soft tissue injuries is very high. I’ll definitely need to look further into what that means, along with several other results.
The one thing to remember in all of this is that a DNA test isn’t like an ability assessment, or a physical exam. I had to think about that as I studied my results. For example, my genetics state that I could use a higher level of Vitamin D in my diet. The results weren’t saying anything about current levels of Vitamin D in my body. I actually take 4,000mcg of Vitamin D a day because I am aware of its health benefits. So these results just confirm what I’m already doing. With regard to my strength training, the results suggest that I might respond better to higher volume, lower weight strength training. That isn’t something I’ve done much, so I’ll take that advice and see how my body responds.
My genes aren’t prescribing any specific form of exercise – my brain, my body and my experience have determined the kinds of exercise that I enjoy doing. My genes just indicate how I might respond to different stimuli.
The other report that you can obtain, as I mentioned above, is an online genetic comparison to a real-world Olympic athlete. Again, don't mistake genetics for a current assessment. Obviously elite athletes have trained for many years, typically in areas that they are genetically predisposed. While the comparison is interesting to a fitness enthusiast, it is probably more useful for a serious competitive athlete. Here is one area of comparison (Performance Genetics), my results on the left, compared to Craig Pickering, an English Track & Field Olympian:
Consultation with an expert
You've probably gathered that a lot of data is generated and delivered during the process. As an additional service to its customers, DNAFit offers the opportunity to consult with one of its experts. I did a consultation with a DNAFit employee named Minky from South Africa. We set up a one-hour audio Skype session between her location and my location here in Utah. I was impressed with Minky. She was not just trained on how to give set answers to questions. Rather, she has a post graduate degree in sports science and a solid track record working with professional athletes. She did have a set pattern of walking me through each area of my personalized report and describing what it meant to me. But I was able to stop her along the way and ask follow-up questions to which she responded.
For example, we discussed why my fitness report would be weighted more towards endurance than power, as I have an aversion to most types of endurance-based cardio and a love for strength training. She explained that the report didn't imply that I should switch modes and focus on cardio. Simply that as my genetics were more well suited for endurance, that in my strength training I should perform more reps and volume rather than low reps, low volume and high intensity. The point was to strike a balance between what you enjoy and what you're predisposed to.
On the nutrition side, I asked her about my "slow" sensitivity to caffeine. While I don't drink coffee or tea, I do take a pre-workout before strength training, and I do use Excedrin on occasion. The explanation was that slower metabolization of caffeine inhibits Vitamin D absorption, which in turn leads to weak bones. But an average of 200mg per day is completely safe. The weak bones/caffeine interaction also explains in part why my report says that I have a greater risk for injury.
All in all, I enjoyed being able to ask questions and receive responses one-on-one. Minky really wanted to ensure that I was satisfied with our consultation to the point where we scheduled some additional time to cover my remaining questions. In reading through the current web-site, it appears that some level of coaching is included with most products. I don't know what that entails since I didn't use it, but the "expert consultation" that I used goes for about $115. Alternatively, they do have user forums with a lot of questions with responses from the DNAFit team. Many of my initial questions were answered there.
Can genetic testing really tell you how to eat, train and achieve maximum health? I’d say that it can definitely give you more insight in how your body responds to different types of exercise and to different factors associated with your diet.
Genetic research has really only just started to explode over the past decade or so, and as more and more research is published, the more we’ll know about how we respond to our environment. But enough has been done that you can use existing information along with everything else you learn to help optimize your training and diet.
Is the service worth $199 to $299 (current price in USD)? I would say for any true athlete, the answer is probably yes as it can help optimize your training. For those of us who are fitness enthusiasts and want to live a healthy, active life, you’d need to look at your budget. While the information is very interesting, it isn’t absolutely necessary. Following a good, healthy diet is always best, and if you’re into exercise, over time you learn how your body responds to various kinds of training. But I’m really happy to have the results, and look forward to applying some of the recommendations to see how my body responds.
Rating (4 out of 5 stars)