02/02/2016 02:38 EST | Updated 02/02/2017 05:12 EST

How Your DNA Can Help You Find The Perfect Diet

Closeup of a beautiful smiling young woman
AZarubaika via Getty Images
Closeup of a beautiful smiling young woman

How can a diet work so well for some people but have no effect on you? Do you ever wonder if it's just an unlucky set of "bad" genes holding you back?

For years, I followed mainstream nutrition advice without question. Putting on muscle meant packing in loads of pasta, bread, and mass gainer supplements. It never once crossed my mind that these foods might not be best for me.

Dozens of diet books, blogs, and gurus try to pull you in different directions, claiming to have found the mother of all diets. Yet, thousands of devoted followers manage to find success in each one of them. Even the top experts can't agree on one ideal diet. How do we make sense of this?

The reason for this confusion is actually quite simple; it's because there is no ideal diet. At least, no one universal diet for everyone.

Our ancestors thrived on a wide variety of foods from all around the globe. For example, Alaskan Eskimos ate a diet rich in fat from sea animals and fish, while tribes in Eastern Africa ate a more starch heavy diet with sweet potatoes, corn, and millet.

There's only one thing in common between the eating habits of our ancestors; no one counted carbs or fat. They simply ate the foods that were natural to their environment and experienced remarkable health. Living under these conditions for thousands of years led to genetic changes in each group that were then passed on to you and I.

It seems like this should make eating healthy simple, but there's a twist in this story. Today, developments like the airplane and the automobile give us access to foods and environments that we're not well adapted for. Combine that with modern food manufacturing and you're in for a lifetime of struggles when it comes to making the right food choices.

At the same time, new technologies have made it possible to discover our heritage like never before. Companies like 23andMe have harnessed the power of DNA testing to help you learn all about your ancestry by region, your inherited conditions, and even your genetic risk factors. How cool is that?

What your genes can teach you about your health

Would you want to know if drinking coffee put you a higher risk for a heart attack? How about if you were at high risk for gluten intolerance? Your DNA holds valuable insights you may never have expected.

Since my days of stomach issues with bread and pasta, I've moved on to a modified version of the paleo diet and I've never felt better. Can you guess what my test results were like for celiac disease?

It turns out, I have a genetic risk factor that's associated with much higher odds for developing the disease. For someone like myself who's done a lot of self experimentation to find out what foods work for me, this is great because it suggests I'm on the right track.

However, more often than not, many of us have no idea when we're engaging in habits that are doing us harm. That's why a DNA test can be a real eye opener, especially if you're having health issues and have no idea why.

The other thing that's really interesting is that 23andMe can trace your lineage and help you discover your ancestral origins. This will tell you what percentage of your DNA comes from different populations around the world.

For example, my test showed that most of my ancestors are Southern European. This tells me that eating Mediterranean foods like fish, olives, and nuts might work much better for me, compared to someone from a high-starch agricultural society in Japan.

Knowing your ancestry is a great way to receive guidance about where to start on your journey towards optimal health.

What genetic testing won't do

If you're worried about finding out that your prone to getting Parkinson's or some other troubling disease, there's one thing for you to keep in mind. Even though your genes provide insight into your genetic risk factors, they only determine a small percentage of your health outcomes.

Things like nutrition, sleep, stress levels and other environmental and lifestyle factors have the biggest impact on your health. In fact, these factors can actually control the expression of your genes, turning them on or off throughout your lifetime.

So don't be afraid, DNA testing will not predict your future. Yet, in a world of information overload, there is no better path to follow than the one laid out by your unique DNA. Learning about yourself in this way can help you plan for the future and keep you one critical step ahead of your health.

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