Diet fads are a dime a dozen, but it often seems as though there’s no one-size-fits all plan for fitting into your ideal pants size. That may be about to change, thanks to a pioneering study from the University of Southern California (USC) aimed at identifying the genetic triggers that determine which dietary regimen is best for each individual person.
Study authors Sean Curran and Shanshan Pang believe that they have pinpointed a package of genetic material that makes individuals more nimble when responding to different diets.
“These studies have revealed that single gene mutations can alter the ability of an organism to utilize a specific diet,” says Curran in a USC press release. “In humans, small differences in a person’s genetic makeup that change how well these genes function could explain why certain diets work for some but not others.”
Translation: individual differences in our genes may make certain diets more effective than others. Your body may love the Paleo diet, but have a hard time (literally) digesting a macrobiotic diet.
Curran and Pang conducted their study on C. elegans, a roundworm commonly used by researchers as a model for biological processes because of its similarity to human beings. In the worms they identified a gene—called alh-6—that was able to stave off the ill effects of aging, even if the organism was fed an unhealthy diet. Worms that lacked this particular gene were more susceptible to nutritional deficiencies.
While they admit the research is still in its infancy, Curran and Pang hope their findings will eventually be combined with the ever-growing phenomenon of genetic testing to determine why certain diets do and don’t work for certain people.
Finding the right dietary fit
In the meantime it’s probably best to seek expert counsel from dietary experts. A panel of health professionals recently reviewed 32 popular diets and ranked them on measures such as how healthy and easy to follow they are.
The resulting U.S. News and World Report, “Best Diets of 2014,” offers interesting insights into the benefits and drawback of each plan. Their top 5 overall diets included:
DASH Diet (first place): Developed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, this diet advises cutting down on salt and fat, and sticking to the traditional food groups—fruits, vegetables, lean protein and low-fat dairy and whole grains. Research into the effectiveness of DASH has shown that the diet may help decrease blood pressure and levels of the “bad” type of cholesterol—LDL.
TLC Diet (second place): Endorsed by the American Heart Association, this regimen aims to reduce high cholesterol by decreasing intake of saturated fat and cholesterol-laden foods like whole milk dairy products and fried items. The TLC diet is considered “heart healthy” and useful for managing heart disease.
Mayo Clinic Diet (tied for third): Named for the institution that developed it, the Mayo Clinic diet is based around the same fruit, vegetable, whole grain and lean meat and dairy combination of the top two diets, with additional information on tracking caloric intake and determining proper portion sizes. Some studies indicate that this diet may contribute to heart health as well as help with weight loss.
Mediterranean Diet (tied for third): The unique longevity of individuals living in the nations that surround the Mediterranean Sea led to the creation of a diet that, leans heavily on fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts, olive oil, fish and moderate amounts of low-fat dairy and red wine. An emphasis on consuming healthy fats and fiber has contributed to the Mediterranean diet’s reputation for helping stave off cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Weight Watchers (tied for third): People on the Weight Watchers plan often see weight loss as their ultimate goal. The plan assigns point values to different foods depending on their nutritional value and calorie count—the basic premise being that an individual can eat whatever they want, as long as they stay within a certain point limit determined by factors such as their age, weight, height and gender. Fresh fruits and vegetables carry a zero point value, while highly-processed foods are assigned much higher numbers. Another part of the Weight Watchers plan are weekly support meetings that allows dieters to swap tips and support one another.
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