Personalized nutrition: ‘a luxury we can’t afford’

15 Sep 2017

It’s not possible to escape the influence of genetics, but for 90% of the population, better diet and lifestyle could prevent many of the diseases associated with ageing, according to pharmaconutritionist Dr Paul Clayton, one of the keynote speakers during the Food Valley Summit Personalized Nutrition, 12 October in the Netherlands.

While personalized nutrition may have a preventative role for those who have genetic risk factors for degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, stroke, diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis, Clayton claims this group only represents about 10% of the population – and tailored nutrition is unlikely to benefit all of them. For everyone else, he says that better nutrition, not smoking, exercising more and limiting alcohol can ensure a long, healthy life, making personalized dietary advice virtually redundant.

“Personalized nutrition is a luxury, and a luxury that I don’t think we can afford,” he said. “I am more interested in people as a farmer thinks about a herd of cattle…The 90% just don’t need it.”

Clayton has a particular interest in Blue Zones – regions or population groups characterised by long life expectancy and good health into old age – and specifically the late Victorian era in England.

“We think of the Victorian era as an era when life was brutish and short, and that was true up until about 1850,” he said. “There was still a lot of childhood mortality but if you lived up to age five, they lived as long as we do today. We spend a long time dying, but that wasn’t the case in the Victorian era.”

According to his analysis of data that include medical and death records, food availability and physical activity, less than 10% of the Victorian population suffered from heart disease or cancer.

“They were eating a fantastically healthy diet. It was like a Mediterranean diet but on steroids,” he said.

In particular, late Victorian diets were high in calories and rich in anti-inflammatories from fruits and vegetables – about ten portions a day – as well as marine-sourced omega-3 fatty acids, and high-fibre foods. Plant oils could not easily be stored, so Victorians consumed fewer omega-6 fatty acids, little alcohol, and only simple processed foods like butter, cheese and bread.

What’s more, they tended to be very physically active, and ate about 3,000 calories a day, which allowed for higher nutrient consumption. Today’s more sedentary lifestyles mean that even with only the most nutrient-dense foods, optimal nutrition is not possible without consuming too many calories, Clayton says.

“In the Victorian era they were taking what we think of as pharmacological doses,” he said. “Supplements should not be necessary at all, but remember that we evolved as hunter gatherers.”

Clayton’s assertion that nearly everyone could benefit from similar foods and nutrients to prevent degenerative diseases sits uncomfortably with the idea of personalized nutrition.

“The current interest in personalized nutrition reflects improved diagnostics and screening capabilities,” he said. “From a public health perspective, it’s basically nonsense…For most people it is more of an economic opportunity than a realistic intervention.”

About Dr Paul Clayton
Dr Paul Clayton is a clinical pharmacologist who, about 45 years ago, started to become interested in foods and food derivates. He is a former Chair of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Forum on Food and Health, and former Senior Scientific Advisor to the UK government's Committee on the Safety of Medicines. Dr Clayton is also the author of Health Defence, which advocates a nutritional approach to improve health and longevity.