Personalized nutrition. Words that belie a somewhat romantic prospect that the uniqueness of my body and the food I consume requires a particular diet, accompanied by a supplementation regimen as delineated as my fingerprint, and lifestyle requirements that, one hopes, mirror my choices. All true. The combination of my genetic make-up, health status and individual nutrient profile will point me toward optimal health. However, the broad-based definition of personalized nutrition is only dwarfed by the dizzying array of data available.
The Organic & Natural Health Association, in collaboration with GrassrootsHealth, a nonprofit public health research organization, is working to support consumer interest in personalized nutrition by expanding direct participation in nutrient field trials. These trials empower consumers by providing data they can use to develop a personal diet, supplement and lifestyle plan that can be monitored over time to ascertain how nutrient levels impact health status.
Over the past seven years, GrassrootsHealth’s 48 renowned, international researchers have created a powerful body of work on vitamin D deficiency, including establishing a target level for vitamin D of 40 to 60 ng/ml by documenting the relationship between health status and vitamin D levels. In 2017, we launched a combined vitamin D/omega-3 nutrient field trial. With the adage “Know Your Levels, Live Life Well," we are facilitating implementation of personalized nutrition strategies to improve health status, reduce rates of chronic disease and change practice guidelines for practitioners and health systems.
Nutrient field trials are high-powered observational studies carefully and rigorously designed, conducted and evaluated to demonstrate correlations between nutrients and health outcomes while taking into consideration the multiple actions and interaction of nutrients. The trials involve large numbers of subjects in order to provide high statistical significance with the outcomes, and move the research into practice quickly and with a high level of confidence.
The power of nutrient field trials has become dwarfed by the perception that randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are the gold standard for research. RCTs are valuable and important. However, many RCTs involving nutrients are designed like drug trials, attempting to focus on one nutrient and looking at a single interaction. Nutrients don’t act alone. They act in combination with other nutrients and have synergistic effects. While both RCTs and observational studies offer valuable contributions to the body of knowledge on nutrition, observational studies such as nutrient field trials are the backbone of nutritional research.
In the words of the late Robert P. Heaney, M.D., distinguished professor of medicine and world-renowned expert in calcium and vitamin D, “We can still build a body of evidence for nutrients, as long as we move away from RCT bias and can accept less evidential certainty than would be appropriate for drugs. After all, compared to drugs, nutrients tend to have a lower risk-to-benefit ratio.
“Randomized trials usually cannot—and, I stress, cannot—provide the evidence needed to ground nutrient health claims or nutrient intake recommendations," Heaney said. “As a result, progress cannot be made until the policy establishment accepts this fact and agrees upon alternatives to RCTs."
To date, more than 12,000 people have participated in GrassrootsHealth vitamin D research. We champion the outcome of this research on our consumer site, nutrientpower.org, and through a comprehensive media campaign featuring nationally recognized practitioners and spokespeople from our Scientific Advisory Committee. This is powerful information. The following three peer-reviewed studies link vitamin D levels ≥40ng/ml with a reduction in cancer risk, the incidence of diabetes and the incidence of pre-term births.
A study published in PLoS One showed that serum levels of vitamin D ≥40 ng/ml are associated with a 65 percent lower cancer risk. (2016. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0152441)
A study published in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry & Molecular Biology showed the incidence of type 2 diabetes is more than 50 percent lower with vitamin D levels of 41ng/ml than a median vitamin D level of 22 ng/ml. (2016;155(Pt B):239-44.)
A study published in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry & Molecular Biology showed that women with vitamin D levels ≥40 ng/mL had a 57 percent lower risk of preterm birth compared to those with levels ≤20 ng/mL. (2016;155(Pt B):245-51.)
The process for consumer engagement is straightforward. Individuals enroll for a fee and provide bi-annual bloodspot tests conducted in the privacy of their homes. The cost of participation is offset by discounted prices for quality supplements. Participants complete a comprehensive survey on health and lifestyle, thus enabling an individual to access his or her levels in relation to the study group and the overall population. By knowing nutrient levels, availing themselves of educational resources and sharing results with their practitioners, study participants can monitor health status over time.
Industry plays a central role in the Nutrient Power campaign. Raw ingredient suppliers, contract manufacturers and finished product companies have invested substantially in RCTs to demonstrate how nutrients impact health status. Yet, we grapple with media reports on a lack of science and the ability to derive all nutrient needs from food. We face assertions by factions of practitioners that supplementation is dangerous and/or unnecessary. Our public policy positions and efforts to change the health paradigm from disease to wellness suffer. Nutrient field trials define effective nutrient levels, illuminate appropriate, individual dosing levels, and document health outcomes.
Nutrient deficiencies are epidemic. Eighty to 90 percent of Americans suffer from low omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Our goal is to expand our research, include nutrients, and their interrelationships, like magnesium, astaxanthin, probiotics and coenzyme (CoQ10). We seek to create unique practitioner-group nutrient profiles and also to enroll their patients in the program. We continue our media outreach. This, we believe, will result in the change we all strive for, healthy people and a healthy planet—with nutrition as a cornerstone of our health care system.
Learn more about nutrient deficiencies and the role of personalized nutrition from Karen Howard during the “Making Personalized Nutrition a Reality" Panel Discussion on Thursday, Sept. 28 at 9 a.m. at SupplySide West in Las Vegas.
A visionary and results-focused leader, Karen Howard is CEO and executive director of the Organic & Natural Health Association. She has spent more than 30 years working with Congress, state legislatures and health care organizations to develop innovative health care policy and programs. Howard has held a variety of executive positions, and has policy expertise in integrative medicine, managed care, health care technology and mental health. She previously served as president of the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC). Howard also served as executive director for the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) and the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Schools.