A new study may explain why diets such as Paleo, Atkins and others work wonders for some people and fail miserably for others.

Weizmann Institute of Science researchers in Israel studied the blood-sugar response of 800 pre-diabetic individuals and found that blood sugar levels after a meal varied greatly, even when the meals were identical. The researchers said that these differences are due to the trillions of bacteria that exist in the gut, which vary greatly from person to person.

Utilizing information—such as current health state, medical history, lifestyle, and microbiome—from their initial cohort of 800 individuals, the researchers were able to develop a predictor for a person’s response to a food item. They then tested the predictor on a smaller cohort of 100 individuals, creating diets that lowered their blood-sugar response.

Their findings indicate that personalized diets may be an effective solution for weight loss and disease prevention/management. In fact, the study's authors encouraged club owners to consider offering personalized diets and predicted increased consumer interest in these diets now that the advancement of science and technology allows health professionals to offer individualized nutrition counseling at the genetic level.

"[Personalized diets] will start coming as a demand by trainees because personalized diets will be a more effective approach than generic diets," lead study authors Eran Elinay and Eran Segal wrote in a joint email.

“We’re starting to see what links there are between food, microbiota, individual genetic makeup and our health,” John Mathers, director of Human Nutrition Research Center at Newcastle University in Britain, told The New York Times. “These different lines of work are beginning to come together now partly because we have the technology to cope with the big data issues.”

These new findings offer food for thought for the health club industry, as owners and managers look for ways to better help their members achieve their nutrition goals—and stay competitive within the industry.

DNA-Based Counseling

One way for health clubs to stay competitive is by offering DNA-based diets and nutritional counseling to members. Just as genes dictate physical characteristics such as eye and hair color, genes also affect individual dietary needs and responses to food components, such as lactose, glucose, caffeine and more. The growing field of nutrigenomics is dedicated to exploring these individual responses.

Several biotech companies have cropped up in recent years to put nutrigenomics into practice. SlimGENEration is a DNA-based healthy lifestyle clinic that offers DNA-based nutrition plans and coaching to personal training clients at several health clubs in Texas and Oklahoma.

According to Sarah Ford, co-founder of SlimGENEration, all personal trainers have a few clients who, despite best efforts, continue to struggle with weight loss. Rather than giving up in frustration—and losing a client in the process—personal trainers at clubs that use the company's services send the client to SlimGENEration for DNA testing.

“Our testing really gives them a pinpointed solution that they can use on their client,” Ford said.

All testing is performed in-house at SlimGENEration. Health coaches run a series of five urine- and saliva-based tests: pH, nitric oxide, zinc, neurotransmitter and full sectional sequence DNA. The DNA testing is performed by taking a cheek swab to extract basal cells from the client, which are then sent to the lab and run through full sectional sequence technology. This technology looks at the obesity gene map, a series of approximately 250 genes specific to factors such as metabolism, where the body stores fat, and what an individual should eat for optimal health. The lab then extracts five genes from the obesity gene map that relate most to diet and exercise and runs these through the technology.

“It’s going to tell me exactly what percentage of protein, fat and carbohydrates you need,” Ford said.

Taking lifestyle into account, SlimGENEration’s health coaches build a customized nutrition plan for the client that reflects the exact percentages of macronutrients and calories needed for weight loss. As exercise is part of the weight-loss equation, the results also indicate the types and frequencies of exercise that are most beneficial. The client is able to take these results back to the personal trainer, who in turn can tailor the client’s workouts to genotype.

“Basically the name of the game is, stay within your macronutrients and exercise to your genotype,” Ford said. “You’re stimulating the genes properly so that they recognize those nutrients and that exercise in order to burn fat as energy.”

Clients typically stay with SlimGENEration for six months. During that time, the client receives weekly coaching and body composition measurements to ensure they are burning fat. At the six-month mark, the client evaluates whether or not to continue with SlimGENEration.

“It makes maintenance easier when they have somebody to report to,” Ford said.

Personal training clients pay SlimGENEration directly for the testing and nutritional counseling with programs starting at $99.

Retention Benefits

Although health club operators don’t see direct profit from this program, the primary benefit to partnering with companies such as this is member retention:

“When they’re custom-building their exercise program to fit [the client’s] genotype, the client gets better results. It’s like a winning circle,” Ford said.

Some of these programs do offer a small revenue possibility for club operators. Nanci Guest, who is a registered dietitian, personal trainer and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto where she researches nutrigenomics and athletic performance, operates as a contractor out of two health clubs and a weight loss center. She uses DNA testing with her clients through genetic testing company Nutrigenomix.

“I’ve been working in the fitness and nutrition industry for 20 years, and I would say that this has been more impactful to help me change people’s behavior than anything else,” she said. “It’s the personalization factor that I think hits home for a lot of people.”

Guest works with about two to three clients per facility each week. Each client sees her at least two times at $225 for the initial consult and $50 for the follow up. They also pay a $298 lab fee to get the DNA testing done through Nutrigenomix. Guest charges $125 for basic processing, which includes saliva collection, submission of a barcode to an online account, mailing or delivering the sample to the lab, plus a 45- to 60-minute consultation once the DNA results come in.

Depending on additional needs, the client pays the following fees: $350 for diet record review plus diet plan based on genetics; $80-$100 for additional hours of service or $50 for 30 minutes, and $225 for a 75-minute consultation that includes a review of the client's three-day food record. 

The health club earns 25 percent of all of these charges, Guest said.

Plus, once clients are drawn in by the technology, the health club staff can step in and upsell nutritional counseling, personal training, vitamin supplements and other services, she said.

“That’s a way of looking at an additional revenue stream that’s beyond the boring ‘see the dietitian to go over your food groups.’ That’s so nineties,” Guest said.

Beyond the revenue and retention aspects of the DNA-based nutritional counseling, programs such as these improve the impression of the club.

“[DNA-based nutrition is] pretty new. It has a high cool factor,” she said. “That’s important, as an additional option for the club.”

Avi Lasarow, CEO, DNAFit, said more health club operators should begin offering DNA-based diets.

“We all know that each person is different, and yet we still prescribe a one-size-fits-all diet and exercise program. Instead, we can now maximize improvements to a diet or exercise program by making it tailored to their genes,” Lasarow told Club Industry in an email.

However, not everyone is a proponent of the DNA-based diet phenomenon. Belldon Colme, founder of the Nutri-90 wellness program, Redlands, California, is one. Colme offers weight loss programs through metabolic optimization. 

“I think [DNA-based diets are] going to be the new buzzword,” he said. “I see them lasting three to five years.”

Time will tell if Colme’s prediction comes true. Meanwhile, the field of nutrigenomics is exploding. And as many health clubs don’t offer DNA-based nutritional counseling to their clients, any owners looking to gain an edge over the competition may want to explore their options.