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Exploring how genetics affects your diet

Nutritional genomics course offers students chance to test their DNA

Research shows people who receive personalized nutritional information do better at improving their diet (photo by travelourplanet.com via Flickr)

Worried that you’re drinking too much coffee? Eating too much salt? A new course at the University of Toronto can answer your dietary queries and provide personalized nutritional advice by analyzing a sample of your DNA.

Nutritional genomics, or nutrigenomics, is a field of research designed to understand why some people respond differently than others to the same foods. It aims to explain, for example, why many people are able to digest dairy products while others are lactose-intolerant.

U of T was the first Canadian university to offer a course in nutrigenomics and this course is now the first to include optional genetic testing.

Professor Ahmed El-Sohemy, course instructor and Canada Research Chair in Nutrigenomics, says research shows that individuals who receive DNA-based dietary advice find the information more useful. They’re also much more motivated to follow the recommendations for healthy eating.

El-Sohemy is also the founder and Chief Science Officer at the U of T biotechnology startup Nutrigenomix, where students’ DNA is analyzed.

“Our research also demonstrates that people who receive personalized nutritional information improve their diet to a greater extent than those receiving the standard dietary advice,” says El-Sohemy.

Students can submit a saliva sample that is used to isolate their DNA for analysis and receive a personalized nutrition report explaining how they can and should eat according to their genes. The comprehensive report also includes information to reduce the risk of developing certain diseases and promote optimal health. 

The course opened to rave reviews last term with many students praising the practical applications of the material they learned.

Kimberly Li, a fourth-year U of T student majoring in Nutritional Sciences and Human Biology, found the course fascinating and ranked it among the best she’s taken at U of T.

“Making the science relatable at the individual level is a brilliant idea because the content becomes so much more powerful and convincing,” says Li. “Recommendations from Canada’s Food Guide apply to the general population whereas Nutrigenomix provides students with personalized advice and information about how their body responds to individual foods based on their own genetic profile.”

El-Sohemy says the science of nutritional genomics is still in its infancy, but as it develops he hopes to learn more about how certain genetic variations affect individual nutritional needs. “Right now we are particularly interested in gluten intolerance and we’re investigating certain genetic markers that could be used to estimate an individual’s risk of being sensitive to gluten.”

The course is offered by the Department of Nutritional Sciences within the University’s Faculty of Medicine. Students require a second year introductory course in nutrition and can receive a personalized nutritional report for about the price of a textbook.

Michael Kennedy is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto.