How Genetic Testing Changed The Way That I Eat

Recently I took my first nutritional genetics test through Nutrigenomix in Canada. I’d been toying with the idea of getting tested for a while, but finally bit the bullet after I taking a 5-week course on nutritional genetics through Monash University in Melbourne. Here’s what I learned about myself and how it’s changed the way that I eat.  

My first encounter with nutritional genetics was in 2012 at the International Congress of Dietetics in Sydney. Back then only a handful of researchers and super-sleuth dietitians knew what nutritional genetics was. I remember listening to a lecture given by Sylvia Escott-Stump, former President of the Nutrition and Dietetics Academy, and thinking to myself ‘This is cool.’.

Since then there has been tons of progress in the field but nutritional genetics still remains relatively new in nutrition practice. It’s a hot topic of conversation amongst dietitians in other countries (like Australia and Canada) however there’s less chatter about it in the US. Yes, it's complicated but there's a growing body of evidence to suggest that nutritional genetic testing provides valuable insight. 

Now, onto the juicy stuff. What did I learn from getting tested?

 

The Test

Firstly, a little background on the test I took. Nutrigenomix looks at 45 genes via saliva sample. I took the sports version which means that some of the genes analysed are specifically related to nutrition for sports performance. I chose Nutrigenomix because it’s developed by some of the leading researchers in nutritional genetics.  

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My Results

Nutrigenomix gives you a bucket load of information back. Some nutrition-gene relationships are stronger and more substantiated than others, but the most interesting findings for me were:

 

Vitamin D.

I have written about being low in Vitamin D before but I don’t have the genetic variants that predispose me to reduced vitamin D binding capacity or activation, so there’s no need for me to go bonkers on my vitamin D dose when my levels return to normal.

 

Vitamin B12. 

I have a genetic variant that affects vitamin B12 absorption and transport, and has been linked with lower circulating levels of vitamin B12. This means that going vegetarian is probably not the best choice for me and if I ever choose to go exclusively plant-based I will need to supplement vitamin B12 and/or be vigilant about consuming B12-fortified foods. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal-derived foods.

 

Folate.

Folate metabolism is partly controlled by a gene called MTHFR. I have variants of this gene which mean that I don’t convert folate into its active form as readily as others. In other words, I need to include more folate-rich foods in my diet to achieve adequacy.  Folate is important for cell division, and DNA replication, and not getting enough of it can have fairly serious consequences, particularly early-on in pregnancy. My MTHFR genotype has also been linked with cardiovascular disease, psychiatric disease, and cancer risk when folate intake is low however the findings are inconsistent [1]. There’s definitely more to come on this one. For now, lots of leafy greens for me!

 

Caffeine. 

I am genetically pre-dispositioned to be a slow caffeine metabolizer. That means that above roughly 200mg of caffeine per day (2-3 espresso shots, or 2 cups of coffee), my risk of high blood pressure, and heart attack goes up. Furthermore, I am less likely to see the endurance performance benefits of caffeine than a fast metabolizer. Does that mean I am cutting out coffee? Absolutely not. However, I will be switching to decaf after my morning cappuccino.

 

Gluten sensitivity.

No surprises here. According to the Nutrigenomix algorithm which looks at 6 different genes involved in gluten intolerance my risk is ‘medium’. About 20% of people have a ‘medium’ risk profile, and another 10% are considered high risk. This explains why gluten and I often have a tenuous relationship.

 

Sodium. 

This one caught me by surprise. I am pretty liberal with the salt shaker, and have seldom noticed ill-effects. However, I have a variant of the ACE gene that makes me more likely to experience blood pressure changes with excess sodium intake.  

 

Caveats

Before you run off and spit into a tube like I did, there are a few things to keep in mind about nutritional genetic testing: 

 

It’s not a standalone tool for evaluating the best dietary approaches for someone.

It’s just one piece of the total nutrition picture. Diet history, weight changes, medical history, social context, other lab results, medications, etc are still important factors for determining the right eating pattern for you. 

 

It provides insight into genetic predisposition, not gene expression.

Just because you have the genes for gluten-sensitivity doesn’t mean that you currently react to gluten and just haven’t noticed it, or you are definitely going to wind up gluten-sensitive in the future. Nutritional genetic testing indicates that you are at higher risk for certain nutrition-related conditions, and some nutrition-gene relationships are stronger than others. 

 

Some risks can be mitigated with a well-rounded, nutrient-dense diet. 

Sure, I may metabolize folate and vitamin B12 less efficiently than others but that doesn’t mean that I need to supplement. In many cases--especially if there’s no evidence of deficiency--adequacy can still be achieved with wholesome, nutrient dense foods.

 

Final Thoughts...

After going through the nutritional genetic testing process I find myself wanting to try more biometric services. I've never thought of myself as a 'biohacker' but it’s been really interesting to learn more about what I am made of! While I haven’t made any dramatic changes to my diet since I got my results back, I feel increasingly empowered to eat meat and seafood for B12, keep an eye on my folate intake, limit gluten, and switch to decaf coffee after my morning caffeine hit. Over the course of a lifetime, those little changes can be really meaningful!


References: 

[1] Homocysteine and MTHFR Mutations. Moll S, Varga EA. Circulation. 2015 Jul 7;132(1):e6-9. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.114.013311. Review. No abstract available.

Food & Fun in Portugal: Part II

The second and third legs of our Portuguese adventure were spent in Porto at the mouth of the Douro River, and Lagos on The Algarve. Once again, we were spoiled with incredible food, and fascinating sights, but this part of the trip came with another bonus: the beach! Check out the details below. 

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A Health-Conscious, Foodie's Guide To Portugal.

PART II: Porto and Lagos

Porto

Porto--second largest city in Portugal--was our next stop after Lisbon. After a brief Airbnb mishap, we ended up at Hotel 1829 in a small, but modern room not far from the Douro River.

Porto is a charming old town city, with a lively riverfront connected by 6 bridges. We got into the tourist thing (at least briefly) and took a cable car to the top of Ponte D. Luís I Bridge for a better view of the city, and it was well worth the 6 euros.

Porto is packed with cozy wine bars, port lodges and restaurants, many of which are so popular that it’s hard to score a table without a reservation.  

Our favorite food and drink spots were:

The Coffee Room : This hidden gem sits on the second floor of The Feeting Room, a shoe shop and clothing store, offering some of the most elegant local creations. The coffee is solid, particularly for a place where a good cappuccino is hard to come across.

Brick Clérigos : This was our first food stop in Porto, and one of my favorite lunches during our trip. After sharing a Mars Bar on the train to Porto I was hankering for a big helping of veggies and that’s exactly what I got at this rustic, farmhouse-inspired cafe. We ordered the vegetarian platter, chicken salad with quinoa, and a chicken and veggie toastie to remedy our hanger. All were excellent, and full of nutrition.

Inside Brick Clérigos, Porto. 

Inside Brick Clérigos, Porto. 

The chicken and quinoa salad, and the vegetarian platter at Brick Clérigos, Porto. 

The chicken and quinoa salad, and the vegetarian platter at Brick Clérigos, Porto. 

Zenith-Brunch and Cocktail Bar: We had an amazing breakfast here. I had sweet potato toast with avocado, mushrooms, and a poached egg, and Ethan had fried eggs with crispy Iberian ham. We also shared a cocoa smoothie bowl because we were both missing our daily smoothie ritual. The service was slow but the end result was well-worth the wait! Oh, how I love a good smoothie bowl!

Sweet potato toast with grilled mushrooms, avocado, and a poached egg, and the cocoa smoothie bowl from Zenith-Brunch and Cocktail Bar, Porto. 

Sweet potato toast with grilled mushrooms, avocado, and a poached egg, and the cocoa smoothie bowl from Zenith-Brunch and Cocktail Bar, Porto. 

Lagos 

Our third stop in Portugal was southern peninsula known as The Algarve. We stayed just outside Lagos at Belmar Resort and Spa overlooking Praia do Porto de Mós. Growing up in Sydney, my bar for coastal towns is high but Praia do Porto de Mós lived up to the hype.

Belmar Resort and Spa overlooking Praia do Porto de Mós. 

Belmar Resort and Spa overlooking Praia do Porto de Mós. 

We opted to go without a car which meant that we relied on our legs for transport, and explored the coastline on foot. Our mid-morning walk from Praia do Porto de Mós to neighboring beach town, Luz, was one of the best things we did all trip, and reminded my of the Bondi to Bronte walk in Sydney. Naturally, I took a million and one photos to save the moment. This place is even more beautiful in-person. 

Praia do Porto de Mós.

Praia do Porto de Mós.

Praia do Porto de Mós to Luz coastal walk. 

Praia do Porto de Mós to Luz coastal walk. 

I expected to eat good seafood near the coast, but the creativity and sophistication of our some of our meals in Lagos was a pleasant surprise. Two particular restaurants stuck out. Again, the bills were shockingly affordable for the quality of the dishes.

Don Artistas: Don Artistas has all the bibs and bobs of fine dining without the pretension. The service was seamless, and the food was thoughtful and tasty. We shared fresh octopus with cucumber and quinoa, lobster bisque, red pepper soup, lamb tenderloin with beet chips, and sea bass with gremolata. We left feeling spoiled (and full)!

Restaurant No Patio: Our second dip into The Algarve food scene was at Restaurant No Patio (which does, in fact, have a patio). Restaurant No Patio is more casual than Don Artistas, but the food is sophisticated, and flavorful, and the staff are attentive. We started with sweet grilled prawns over greens and mango salsa, and both had fresh fish as mains. The fish was some of the freshest and tastiest I’ve eaten. New project: Learn how to cook fish like that at home.

Another pleasant surprise in Lagos was meeting-up with fellow dietitian and blogger, Alex Caspero, and her husband, Bryan. Alex runs a great site called Delicious Knowledge, and her and Bryan are equally excited about travel and food as us. We had a fun time sharing travel secrets, and foodie finds at a local bar called Bon Vivant.


Was 10 days in Portugal enough? No. We missed the castles of Sintra, the vineyards of the Douro Valley, The Azores, and other notables. But we’ve seen enough to be wooed by Portugal’s magic. Hopefully, we’ll be back for another glass of port and plate of grilled sardines someday.

Food & Fun in Portugal: Part I

When I told people that I had booked 10 days in Portugal I got a lot of ‘that seems like an odd choice’ looks. However, after exploring three cities I can safely say that Portugal is anything but boring. Vibrant and charming with a breathtakingly beautiful natural landscape, Portugal surpassed my expectations in almost every way. Here’s what we did, where we ate, and why you should add Portugal to your bucket list.

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A Health-Conscious, Foodie's Guide To Portugal.

PART I: Lisbon

As I write this post we’re on the train from The Algarve back to Lisbon for the final leg of our Portuguese journey.  We’ve spent 10 days eating, walking and drinking our way across three cities, but still I feel like we’ve only scraped the surface. I can’t help but wonder why Portugal isn't a more popular holiday destination. 

With that in mind, I wanted to provide a snapshot of our adventure across Europe’s westernmost country. We ate, slept and explored tons of great places, and it would be remiss not to share our discoveries with other health-conscious travel lovers.

Our itinerary included 4 nights in Lisbon, 2 in Porto, and another 3 in Porto de Mos just outside of Lagos. This first post is all about colorful, gritty Lisboa.

 

Where We Stayed

We stayed in Santa Catarina in this apartment, and then this one-bedder on our final night in Portugal. Both were comfortable, clean and convenient. Santa Catarina is less touristy and quieter than Barrio Alto but within walking distance to just about everything. I loved running along the Rio Tejo, exploring the quirky shops of São Bento, and tramping up the old, winding streets of Alfama. We usually pick a museum or two to explore when we visit a new city but this time we opted to get lost on foot, and immerse ourselves in local culture instead. We were also epically jet-lagged when we arrived in Lisbon so sun exposure was essential!

 

The Food

Lisbon has an excellent (and affordable) food scene that incorporates European, and Moorish flavors, and celebrates it’s proximity to the ocean. We enjoyed an endless run of great food in Lisbon, but these gems were our favorites:

The Mill: This bustling coffee joint in Santa Catarina makes a mean cup of coffee, and a brag-worthy breakfast. I had the bircher muesli and Ethan had the 'The Breakfast Stack'; both were delicious and beautifully presented. In a country that loves a good pastry for breakfast, this was a welcome healthy reprieve.

The Breakfast Stack at The Mill: Tomatoes, chorizo and spinach on top of bread with a fried egg, and toast. 

The Breakfast Stack at The Mill: Tomatoes, chorizo and spinach on top of bread with a fried egg, and toast. 

Hello, Kristof: Hip coffee and magazine spot with a small, but reliable menu. My avocado toast with tomato and pistachios was nothing short of excellent, and just what I needed to shake-off 24 hours of substandard travel food. They have gluten-free bread for those who prefer to eat sans gluten, and a cool-as-sh*% space to ponder your next stop.

Avocado toast with tomato, crushed pistachios, peppercorns and salt at Hello, Kristof. 

Avocado toast with tomato, crushed pistachios, peppercorns and salt at Hello, Kristof. 

Time Out Market Lisboa: Opened in 2014, Time Out Market Lisboa is the Eataly of Portuguese food and aggregates some of the best regional food options. This place offers everything from local favorites like custard tarts and grilled sardines, to burgers and pizza for the less adventurous palate. Surprisingly, takeout is not an option--every dish is elegantly styled and served on porcelain. And if it’s booze you’re after there’s plenty of that too.

Pistola y Corazon Taqueria: Lisbon may be a far cry from Mexico, but this lively bar serves up some seriously delicious Mexican fare. I had shrimp tacos, and Ethan had posole to remedy a 24-hour tummy bug. Both were flavorful and fresh, and I’d go back in a heartbeat.

Yao Pressed Juicery: A hole-in-the wall juicery and smoothie stop that makes their own almond milk and boasts uber-hip toppings like bee pollen and hemp seeds. A great stop for anyone lusting after a quick dose of fruit and veggies after indulging in one too many custard tarts.

The blueberry muffin smoothie from Yao Pressed Juicery.

The blueberry muffin smoothie from Yao Pressed Juicery.

Hotel do Chiado Rooftop Bar: With gorgeous view of Rio Tejo, and The Alfama this chic terrace bar is hard to beat for happy hour. This is where we spent our last night in Lisbon, before dining at Mini-Bar. Bring your jacket if it’s a cool day.

Looking over Alfama from Hotel do Chiado's rooftop bar. 

Looking over Alfama from Hotel do Chiado's rooftop bar. 

Mini Bar: Run by Portugal’s most famous chef, José Avillez, Mini-Bar feels like Moulin Rouge minus the adult entertainment, and serves-up inventive small plates. We shared 7 dishes and 2 desserts. The avocado tempura with dehydrated kimchi was our favorite, followed by the ‘roasted chicken’ (a chicken skin chip with smoked cottage cheese and avocado), and the steak tataki. The savory selections were better than our dessert.

Prior to our trip I'd heard mixed reviews about Lisbon but I really enjoyed it. Yes, it's gritty but there's something about jeweled-toned buildings with terracotta roofs, and laundry displayed proudly in the street that's incredibly charming. In many way Lisbon is similar to San Francisco. It's been roughed-up by earthquakes several times, has the same undulating terrain, and celebrates good food and drink much like San Francisco.