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Health and wellness

US$600 DNA test that tells you how to exercise and what to eat offered to Hong Kong gym-goers – we give it a try

Tailor-made fitness and diet plans meant to optimise your health and life chances are growing in popularity, but how useful are the findings?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 1:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 8:07pm

One size does not fit all when it comes to working out and eating well, claims a company that offers DNA tests for people who want a better idea of how their individual body works.

Based on the idea that a person’s genes can dictate what kind of food and exercise they require for optimal health, Pure Fitness in Hong Kong ran a DNA testing trial last month, and I was invited to participate.

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The gym’s Innovation Lab, a division of the company that experiments with new fitness trends, partnered with Advanced Genomic Solutions (AGS), a US genetic testing company that has been in Hong Kong since 2015, to offer a select group of volunteers a free DNA sequencing test – usually valued at HK$4,800 (US$615).

In the initial session, representatives from Pure and AGS spoke to participants to answer questions and ease any fears about data privacy (AGS does not sell or share data with third parties, nor does it store it in the cloud), samples getting mixed up (highly unlikely), and whether eating a pork bun beforehand would throw the test off (it doesn’t). They swabbed each participant’s mouth with cotton buds, which were sent off to be analysed.

While waiting for the results, I met business development director Eneko Goya and dietitian Krystal Li at AGS’ lab in Central. “We’re in the era of personalising everything, but when you go to a dietitian or personal trainer, they don’t know what’s behind that customer and their optimum training,” Goya says.

“Genetic tests can be used for two reasons: to change your lifestyle, and to understand why things happen to you in the way they’re happening. In most cases, people in the USA and UK are taking the tests because they want to lose weight, whereas in Asia, we’re finding that some people want to gain weight, especially guys who want to get muscle.”

How staggering advances in DNA testing help our lifestyle choices

Consumer-genomics companies like AGS have been making such tests available to the mass market for at least five years, correlating genetic data with a plethora of lifestyle variables. Clients of many of these companies can learn what percentage of Neanderthal genes they have, which wine best suits their genotype, what sport their body is primed to excel in, and if they have a risk of developing serious diseases, such as cancer.

For now, AGS is steering clear of the ancestry revelations and cancer predictions, and focusing on the market for tailor-made fitness and diet plans.

Li, who leads the nutrition-focused team that helps clients make sense of the advice they receive in their results pack, says prevention is the best cure. “If you know your disease risk, what do you do? You change your lifestyle,” she says. “Even if your risk is low, you want to give yourself the best chances with your lifestyle.”

One trial participant, Nicholas Cook, 33, who wanted to become a faster runner and learn how to manage his weight better, had previously bought a report from AGS’ UK-based rival DNAFit six months before his test at Pure.

The first firm’s results had recommended he balance endurance training (running, cycling, hiking) with more strength-based work, such as weightlifting. It also brought to light a “high carbohydrate sensitivity”, which gave Cook the drive he had been seeking to cut down on carbs. He hoped the results from AGS would provide further insights and corroborate the information from his first test.

I think my response to this report would have been different if I hadn’t already done one, and I’d have taken a lot of this at face value
Nicholas Cook

After a week, we each received a 30-page report. It laid out which vitamins we were likely to be deficient in, gave suggestions regarding exercise, noted our efficiency in caffeine and alcohol metabolisation, and gave psychological observations, such as whether we were likely to be emotional eaters.

My test said I should favour endurance-style exercise over power-based training, which, as a runner, I found validating. It advised that I should avoid monounsaturated fatty acids – found in avocados, olive oil and various nuts – as my genotype indicated that polyunsaturated fats, such as chia and flax seeds, would be a better option to maintain a healthy BMI (body mass index).

The data showed I had “no genetic tendency to overeat” nor “increased risk of addictive behaviour” – statements that I questioned.

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Cook said lots of information corresponded to his first test. But he was confused by conflicting advice to increase his carbohydrate intake to form more than half of his meals, while decreasing strength training in favour of more running. With Cook already concerned about his carbohydrate intake, this came as a shock.

“I think my response to this report would have been different if I hadn’t already done one, and I’d have taken a lot of this at face value – though, even then, I would have still been surprised by the carb recommendation,” he says.

A stumbling block for the consumer-genomics industry, so far, has been that few doctors are willing to back this kind of testing because, as far as peer-reviewed DNA studies go, scientists have only scratched the surface – there are more than 20,000 human genes, and few have been studied extensively.

Goya accepts that, so far, the medical community has not reached a consensus on the legitimacy and efficacy of genetic profiling. Studies related to nutrition and exercise, he believes, are more compelling than those concerned with cancer risk, while the accuracy of DNA testing will only keep improving as more genes and their variants are studied.

“The technology is moving really fast,” says Goya. “When we started, the first test analysed 20 genes, which was pretty comprehensive for that time. We’re now analysing 60 genes. In two or three years it’ll be more than 200.”

You want to give yourself the best chances with your lifestyle
Krystal Li, AGS

The science is always evolving, meaning that data interpretation could change based on new findings. That’s why finding out you have a genetic disposition towards low iron (as I was told), or lactose intolerance, should be followed by a visit to the doctor for confirmation, AGS recommends.

For those frustrated by diminishing returns at the gym, the test offers insights that may indicate why you’re not keeping trim as efficiently as your lazier colleague, while the idea of a personalised diet plan that goes right down to your chromosomes is a strong motivational push to keep engaged with your new regime.

Personally, while it might be responsible for that pesky spare tyre around my middle, the evidence isn’t strong enough to make me cut down on avocado toast any time soon.