If you do a DNA test, you might not always hear what you wanted to hear. Now I ran out of excuses…
Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. Doing a DNA test encouraged me to be more honest to myself, make healthier choices and become a better version of myself. Even though I was a foodie for years, this was the thing that sparked my interest in nutrition and nutritional science. It was an unexpected wake-up call.
My lifelong weight struggle in a nutshell
I struggled with my weight all my life and was firmly convinced that I’m destined to be chubby. During my childhood, my weight kept creeping up and up. Ultimately I ended up at 120 kilos (265 pounds) when I was around 18 years old. Something clicked in my brain when I saw that devastating number on the scale. I started doing WeightWatchers for 3 years, started to love cooking and lost 30 kilos. More importantly, I learned about more healthy eating habits and how much calories are in which foods.
Ever since then my weight bounces around between 80 and 90 kilos. Sometimes it’s more muscle (going to the gym excessively), sometimes it’s more flab (eating pizza excessively). My weight constantly fluctuates with jumps of 4-5 kilo up and down not being uncommon. Therefore I made it a habit to go to the gym 3-5 times a week just to keep my weight in check. I talked myself into believing that I have a genetic predisposition to put on weight and that I need to counter it by going to the gym. I made my peace with this fact.
Turns out that I was very wrong and that I was deceiving myself.
A DNA test for optimum nutrition and physical exercise
A while back I came across the concept of DNA food box (Dutch article): You do a DNA test and get a 100% personalized meal kit delivered to your doorstep a la Marley Spoon, Blue Apron or HelloFresh. This concept sounded absolutely fascinating to me, but I hate the idea of someone else deciding what I have to eat in a week. I got in touch with “Omnigen” – the company that does the DNA science and tells you exactly what to eat and do in order to become the best version of yourself. The advice is focused on nutrition in order to lose or maintain weight, as well as on sports and how to exercise most efficiently based on your genetic makeup. Most people take the DNA test in order to lose weight. However, they also work together with Olympic athletes helping them to improve their performance.
I was skeptical because I expected some hocus-pocus black-box approach, where you would just blindly need to believe what they tell you without being able to verify it. In recent months we have all read countless stories of people doing multiple DNA heritage tests and getting different results in every single one. I assumed I simply needed to believe whatever Omnigen would tell me and had no way of fact-checking it. This is where I was wrong. Berry Kriesels (founder of Omnigen) and his team of researchers don’t try to hide anything. The research they use for their advice is based on objective scientific, peer-reviewed studies. If you look up your genotype and variations in into public genetics databases like SNPedia.com you will actually find pretty much the identical to the results that Omnigen present, as well as the scientific studies that back these findings. Transparent and founded by actual research. No bullsh*t or broscience here!
They showed me an example report of what I could expect in terms of results once they analyzed about 60 different genetic markers in my DNA. The richness of the report was what tipped me over. They approached nutrition and exercise from such a different angle, but all based on genetical research and scientifically backed-up advise.
I got myself a DNA testing kit from them and send in my mouth swab. In the meantime, the example report got me really excited and made me read-up a lot about nutrition and nutritional science.
After a few weeks, I got my own results.
There is no more way around it: I struggle because I make bad lifestyle choices
Sometimes the truth hurts. Before I got my own results I went through the example report and wrote down what I would expect to see based on 31 years of life experience. Although I was almost 100% sure that my genes are responsible for my weight, science tells a different story. Now I have it black-on-white: My weight is my fault, and it’s time to take responsibility and stop making excuses.
Weight: Genetics don’t cause me to gain weight, consuming 3000+ calories does
My weight fluctuates a lot throughout the months. I blamed this on genetics, but it turns out I actually have a very low risk of being obese. With my body composition and activity level, I should need around: 2,800 kcal. When I started tracking my daily calories with an app (free version of MyFitnessPal) I realized that I was over-eating quite a bit. Once you fill in a food diary you realize how much you are snacking and how much calories find their way into your belly, it’s hard to blame it on anyone else but yourself. In my case, there were several days throughout the week in which I consumed between 3000 and 4000 calories. Usually, these are the days in which I go out for food with friends or the ones I spend on the couch with salty snacks. Restaurant oversized portions, appetizers and deep-fried foods, all accompanied by liquid calories (beer and wine). Finishing a can of Pringles comes in at 1000 kcal, a bag of coated nuts (the Dutch call them “borrelnootjes”) comes in at 1500 kcal. Quite easy to not end up with a calorie deficit this way. I realized I had to be more honest to myself: My lifestyle causes me to gain weight, not my genetics.
Macro composition: I should focus on protein, rather than carbs and fats
In my life I tried various types of diets, ranging from low-fat (WeightWatchers), to ketogenic (low carb, read about my keto experience here). Both approaches have worked for me in the short term. In the long run not so much. Ultimately, I figured out that a balanced approach, without cutting out particular groups of macro-nutrients is the healthiest approach. There are countless macro calculators out there. Based on my genetics Omnigen suggests I stick to a fixed amount of protein in my diet if I want to shed some pounds.
Calories: 2298 kcal (500 calorie deficit)
Given I go to the gym quite frequently, want to eat less saturated fat from animal products and simply because I’m a know-it-all, I changed these macro proportions slightly. I aim for carbs: 55%, fat: 25%, protein: 20%. If I consume products higher in fat, I try to stick to products high in polyunsaturated fats. In practice, this means I try to eat fatty fish like salmon and herring 1-2 times a week. On top, I eat a small handful of nuts and seeds every day now (usually around 15g of almonds, walnuts or pumpkin seeds).
Nutrition: I never cared about micronutrients and deficiencies before. Turns out I should
As I like to cook from scratch and aim to eat several portions of fruit and vegetables a day, I never cared about micronutrients. If you eat a lot of fresh produce you should get everything into your body that you need, right? The example report encouraged me to look deeper into nutrition.
Most days of the week I try not to eat animal products and if I had to classify myself I would be a flexitarian (yeah that’s a thing). On top of that, I was never a big fan of legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) and I loooove salty snacks. When I started to track my food with MyFitnessPal I realized that I consumed a lot more sodium (=salt) than I should and that I don’t hit my recommended amounts for either iron, calcium, nor potassium.
This is the page from the paper example report that I received. In practice, I have a genetic risk of getting insufficient levels of vitamin B6, B11, and iron. The reason is that my body is not able to absorb it as efficiently as others, based on my genetics. I should especially reduce my salt intake because I genetically have an increased risk of hypertension caused by high sodium intake. Decreasing the sodium intake while increasing my potassium intake to counteract it, is probably a really good idea.
After several hours on the web crunching numbers and combining the nutritional value of different foods I came up with a few easy ways to make sure my body gets more of what it needs, without compromising on my lifestyle a lot. Of course, variation is key. There is truth in the saying that you should eat the rainbow. The good news is, there is no need to reach for over-hyped ‘superfoods’.
Shortlist of foods that I try to eat more regularly now:
- Legumes (white beans, chickpeas, and green peas)
- Courgette, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, sweet potato, mushrooms
- Lean seafood (shellfish, mussels, white fish) and fatty fish (salmon, herring, anchovies, sardines)
- Liver and offal cuts occasionally
Physical exercise: My current relationship with the gym is quite toxic
For the first 20 years of my life, I hardly did any sports. As a kid, I picked up football and went to training 3 times before dropping out again. That’s pretty much the whole highlight reel of two decades. Once you are properly overweight, exercising becomes even more of a chore. So avoiding it altogether was much easier than putting the effort in. I was able to lose weight by purely changing my nutrition back in the days. Exercising regularly is something I only picked up later in university. I went from doing absolutely nothing to working out 5-7 times a week. Why? To prove to myself that I could. I wanted to get into shape, having a more toned body and feel better about myself. Pure vanity.
I tried running but never really liked it. Once I started weight training in the gym during my last student days I really enjoyed it. It helped to clear my head and quiet it down. It also felt a lot less monotonous to me than running or other cardio. Whenever I did cardio I never really saw results. With weight training this was different. Some flab went away and I put on some muscle. Seeing the results of the work that I put in felt empowering and slightly addictive. During those days I never watched what I ate. Nowadays, going to the gym several times a week became my excuse for eating whatever I wanted without any too noticeable consequences.
The DNA test shows that genetically speaking I more suited for weight training. Not only do I have a predisposition for more fast-twitching muscles (type I muscles), but also for quicker recovery time and excelling at brief high-intensity exercises. That is probably the reason why I saw results considerably quicker with resistance training than with cardio.
Based on my results doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and body-weight training (calisthenics) should be the ideal ways for me to train my body in a very efficient way, without even having to rely on the gym and equipment.
High risk of gaining weight when training less
One really interesting result in the report is that I have a relatively higher risk of gaining weight back when I stop exercising. The reason for this my TT genotype in the SNP rs1121980 of the FTO (fat mass and obesity-associated protein) gene. This increased risk appears to be greater for people with an inactive lifestyle.
I have definitely seen this in the past. My main motivation to go to the gym was to keep being able to eat whatever I want. Especially in times where I couldn’t find the time to go to the gym and emotional eating took over, I gained weight quite quickly. While the number of calories being burnt went down considerably, my caloric intake stayed the same (or was even higher).
This is probably the reason why they say that you can NEVER out-train a bad diet.
Omnigen also gives some hands-on advice that’s pretty straight forward and gives me another reason to aim for those 10,000 steps a day and ditch the elevator:
- Reduce calorie intake during periods when you are training less.
- Keep an active lifestyle with enough moderately intense exercise daily (walking, biking, taking the stairs, etc.).
- Reduce training gradually.
Mindset: High willingness to exercise, but no positive feelings afterward
I was really surprised to find a section about the mindset in the report. Of course, DNA, body, and mind have a very complex interaction, but it simply never occurred to me that my DNA would also shape the way how I think. Turns out that some of the most researched genetic markers revolve around our dopamine reward system. When I thought about this, of course, it makes a lot of sense. It’s really fascinating for me to learn more about the ways my brain works by looking at the DNA.
What someone bothers me is the combination that genetically speaking, exercise does not give me a good feeling, but I also have a high degree of willingness to exercise. This is also something that I can identify myself with. People always tell these stories that they feel so energized after a workout. I usually don’t have that feeling. Though I feel better that I have done something physical and am able to clear my head through exercising, I don’t have that big endorphin rush people always talk about.
As mentioned above, I also definitely have a tendency to overtrain. Working out for 5 to 7 times a week is something that has happened regularly in recent years. I was going to the gym to stay on weight and not put on the pounds.
The following advice from Omnigen based on another genetic marker could have been straight out of one of my managers’ evaluations as it 100% spot-on describes me:
“However, you should watch out not to delay your lifestyle change. Based on this test, you can be likely to dwell too long on the search of the best method, rather than actually starting. Therefore, be alert to prevent this!”
Caffeine: There is a reason why I gulp down a lot more coffee than others
I did not expect that in DNA tests would cover caffeine as well. It turns out that I break down caffeine more quickly and effectively than most other people. This does explain why I pour down coffee as if it was water. A lot of people use caffeine to boost their physical performance. Based on scientific research, an improvement to my sport’s performance should occur between 255 and 510 mg of caffeine. That’s a lot! The over-the-counter caffeine pills that are available at pharmacies in Germany usually have 200mg. If you take two of those, you’ll start to get muscle tremors. I know this because I have tried this when pulling all-nighters in university days. Most pre-workout supplements have between 150 and 250mg caffeine per portion, even though some go up to 300+mg. All of them advise taking no more than one portion at a time. I’ll stick to the amounts that are recommended from the supplement manufacturers and not go overboard. Try out what works for yourself!
Nature vs. nurture, or, how valid is the advice from a DNA report in practice?
You have your genes, and you have your upbringing and lifestyle. There is still a lot to be discovered about the complex interaction between nature and nurture. Both shape the way how your body works and reacts. As far as I can see the findings and recommendations from Omnigen are based on well-grounded scientific research. Still, if the advice you receive from a DNA analysis structurally differs from what you have gotten from a GP or doctor, I’d strongly suggest you follow the advice from the health professional instead. Listen to your gut. For me, the advice I received from Omnigen was eye-opening and pretty much all of it makes sense if I truly and objectively look at myself and my behavior. I personally see no reason to question the results that I have gotten.
Value for money, or, What does a DNA analysis for optimum nutrition and exercising cost?
You are probably asking yourself if it’s worth the money to order a DNA test and get it analyzed. Omnigen sells these tests for normally €180. When I first saw this price, I thought it is relatively more expensive than other DNA tests that I have seen. Think for example of 23andMe and AncestryDNA, which are both available for only €99. One reason other parties provide these tests cheaper is that they actually sell your DNA data to third parties like big pharma, which is really not cool… (sources: BusinessInsiders, Vice Motherboard [Dutch]). Omnigen does not. The two main arguments that won me over, however, were the richness of the results in the example report as well as the science backing it up. No hocus-pocus black-box approach here, but proper research from independent scientific studies.
The results of this report have changed my relationship with food and my attitude towards the gym. Even though I fostered my beliefs and this relationship over several years, it only took this one report to challenge and overthink them completely. The results from the DNA test encouraged me to deepen my knowledge about diets in general, about nutrition and about micronutrients and -deficiencies. It changed my mindset and attitude towards physical exercise and my food intake. I started taking better care of myself physically as well as mentally as a result of that.
What came out of the results was a reality check for me. At first, it was really confronting to see the assumptions and excuses crumble that I had built up over years. Still, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it. Accepting it and looking for ways to make sure I take better care of myself is going to be a journey for the years to come. I just started to see food in a completely different light. Now all those posts I recently wrote about nutrition and psychology in the last weeks make sense, right? (Increasing nutritional value, psychology, mindset and self-control, fruit hack). On top, I lost 6kg in the last 7 weeks and went from 89 down to 83 kilos again.
That’s good value for money in my opinion.