Can a DNA Test Really Pinpoint Your Perfect Diet and Workout? Here’s What Science Says


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It sounds either too good or too futuristic to be true: Just by spitting into a tube, you can find out the answers to questions that plague us all: Why can’t I lose weight? Why can’t I sleep? What exercises should I do for a perkier butt?

This is the claim from a new crop of so-called lifestyle DNA tests—genetic tests that, rather than estimate your risk of developing various diseases, provide clues regarding your nutrition, fitness, sleep, even your taste in wine.

In July, lifestyle DNA tests inched closer to mainstream with the launch of Helix, a first-of-its-kind marketplace for personal genome products: For $80, Helix will use a saliva sample to sequence 22,000 of your genes, unlike other at-home DNA tests, which look for specific gene variants.) Then you can pay for analysis of your results through products designed by third-party vendors that partner with Helix.

The idea is to enable users to get even more info out of their DNA sequencing, explains James Lu, MD, PhD, one of Helix’s co-founders and its SVP of applied genomics. Accessible genetic data can make insights you’re already tracking–say, on a calorie-counting app, or fitness wearable–even more salient. “It’s the next layer of information people have about themselves,” he says.

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Helix users have 33 products to choose from. There’s SlumberType, which promises to unlock how your DNA affects your sleep. Muscle Builder offers to reveal “your genetic response to exercise,” and provide a 12-week “genetically-guided” training plan. And EmbodyDNA, by popular weight-loss app Lose It!, recommends slimming foods based on your genes.

The products, which range from around $25 to a couple hundred bucks, comb through your genome looking for markers linked to specific traits. (For each analysis you purchase, Helix only provides access to the portion of your genome that’s relevant.) For example, you might have a genetic marker common among night owls, or people with higher BMIs. Knowing you’re predisposed to a late bedtime might be extra incentive to cut back on caffeine, explains Dr. Lu; or knowing you’re predisposed to a high BMI might make you think twice about having bacon at brunch.

If that doesn’t sound like the quick fix you were expecting, that’s because there is “no magic DNA pill,” Dr. Lu says. Instead, he sees Helix as a source of extra insight into your wellbeing that can help you make healthier decisions.

In fact, many of the recommendations you’ll get through Helix are based on more than your genes alone. Take, for example, Wine Explorer: For $30, the product will suggest bottles “scientifically selected based on your DNA.” But Wine Explorer also asks questions about your wine preferences to learn more about other factors that influence taste beyond your genes. Dr. Lu compares the product to Netflix. “Wine Explorer builds a profile based on genetic markers, and then when you get wine, you rate them, which helps it make better predictions over time,” he says.

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Suggestions for the best diet or exercise routine for you may also not be as genetically tailored as you’d hope. For starters, research shows genetics often play only a small role in the effects of diet and exercise, explains Erica Ramos, the president-elect of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. “When studies see a…



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