Sangeeta Sirohi, 33, stands fivefeet and three-inches tall and till about six month ago, weighed 79 kg. Determined to lose weight, she started exercising rigorously for 45 minutes every day without fail. But four months later there was hardly any result. Then she heard of a test that studied a person's genetic makeup to help determine what kind of food and exercise would work best for the individual to lose weight. Sirohi approached XCODE Life Sciences, one of the organisations offering the DNA test.
"We found that she needed to do mild-intensity exercises instead of the vigorous regime she was following," says Saleem Mohammed, co-founder and CEO of XCODE, a Chennai-based biotech start-up. "Her genetic makeup was such that the harder she exercised, the more she craved for food to compensate for the glucose that her body would start absorbing at a high rate." Her exercises and diet were modified accordingly and Sirohi started shedding weight without feeling any kind of weakness or having to drastically change her life.
A study on weight management conducted by Stanford University found that people who eat and exercise according to their genetic predisposition tend to lose two-and-a-half times as much weight as compared to those who do not. So, while a low-fat diet might work for some people, others might benefit more by including fat in their diet but going slow on carbohydrates. This explains why two individuals might obtain vastly different results by following a particular diet or weight loss plan even if their body mass index, or BMI, metabolic rate, body composition, lifestyles and dietary habits are more or less similar, says Sandeep Ahuja, managing director and group CEO, VLCC Health Care. "This is why individuals on genotype-appropriate diets lose more body weight compared to those on diets not matched to their genotype or on a traditional, one-size-fits-all model," he adds. The fitness and beauty chain offers "DNA Slim", a weight loss solution based on the genetic analysis of an individual.
Among the others who offer the test are Delhi-based Adam's Genetics and NutraGene. The DNA is collected through a cheek swab for which kits are available online or with nutritionists and wellness centres. This is a non-invasive technique. The sample is then sent to a laboratory where it is tested for certain markers. The results take a maximum of 21 days. "We have two tests - one that studies 13 markers and the other that analyses 49," says Shah Fahad Husami, founder of Adam's Genetics.
One of the key markers that laboratories look out for is the FTO gene - the prominent gene linked to obesity. Research indicates that before World War II, people were shielded from the risks of this gene because of scarcity of food and the high physical activity they engaged in, but now sedentary lifestyle has made this gene a threat.
This gene could have well been at play in the case of 25-year-old Ankita Sharma. When Sharma approached VLCC in May this year, she weighed 96.5 kg and her waist was 113 cm. She had an ambitious target: to lose 10 kg in a month.
She was advised a DNA test analysis, which revealed that she was predisposed to enhanced fat storage and fat absorption. Based on this, she was prescribed a low fat and low carbohydrate diet.
The DNA test also showed that she had a predisposition towards slow energy metabolism and decreased responsiveness towards exercises. So, a moderate to high intensity exercise programme, 6-7 days a week, was recommended. "Now, I weigh 78 kg," says Sharma, "and my waist is down to 98 cm." She says though she has lost 20 kg, she does not feel weak or listless, which is a problem often reported with crash diets.
Weight loss, however, is not the only aim of the genetic test. It also offers indicators to how the body will respond to a particular diet or exercise. "Certain studies, for example, tell you that wine or alcohol in moderation is beneficial and increases good cholesterol levels in the body," Husami. "But this might not hold true for some people whose genetic makeup might be such that the way their body metabolises alcohol might not benefit their health."
Helpful as it might be, genetic science is, however, still in a nascent stage. So, responsible laboratories and start-ups that offer the test prefer to partner with qualified doctors and nutritionists instead of handing out kits directly to people who might misread the results. Bengaluru-based dietician Laxmi Sri Pandrala is among the nutritionists who turn to this science while planning an individual's diet and fitness programme.
The DNA test results, says Pandrala, are so specific "that I know which vitamin to recommend and in what quantity". The test, she adds, can be conducted on a child as young as two. "By analysing the markers, it is possible to tell which deficiencies the child could be prone to at a later age or the body type he or she has."
While VLCC's DNA Slim programme starts at Rs 6,499 (DNA test included), the 13-marker test at Adam's Genetics costs Rs 10,000. And, the one that looks at 49 markers and covers a person's genetic propensity to various diseases and the treatment his body would respond to costs Rs 25,000.
Experts, however, say the test alone will not help, unless you also take into account the environmental factors related to weight - and religiously follow the recommended diet and exercise.
DIETICIANS AND WELLNESS CENTRES ARE ALSO USING GENE TESTS TO HELP SPORTSPERSONS gain insights into their physical strengths and weaknesses so that they perform better.
Adam's Genetics, for example, tests the DNA for 20 key genes that help understand whether the body will react better to power or endurance training, or if the sportsperson is prone to injuries and also how quickly the body will recover after exercise. Among the tests are those that indicate a person's respiratory capacity and ability to control the blood pressure.
"I modify the sportsperson's diet and exercise regime accordingly," says Pandrala, the Bengaluru-based dietician. "If the DNA report indicates that the person's recovery period is slow, then I concentrate more on recovery foods, whether natural or in supplement form," says the dietitian who has been recommending DNA tests for the last four years. "Pomegranate juice and fruit, for example, are very good for recovery, post strenuous exercise or after a tournament."
If the sportsperson is prone to injury or fracture, she says she would focus on foods that have Vitamin D and calcium. If muscle spasm is the problem, then the emphasis is on hydration.
Study before the test
"Currently, these tests are being conducted on limited parameters. With time, this science will evolve, just like technology did," she says. While the science behind the programmes is robust, it takes a skillful and academically qualified nutritionist to understand and employ it.
This can't be a plug-and-play kind of thing, says Sharma. "While the saliva sample test is relatively simple, do check if the laboratory has good quality machines."
Husami of Adam's Genetics also emphasises the importance of going through qualified practitioners. "This science cannot be approached in a quick-fix manner," he says.