From health apps to DNA testing kits, countless sophisticated tools are available to help personalise diet and exercise goals.
But, how do you know which are right for you? What’s more, how safe is the information you plug into these programs and apps?
Researcher and dietitian Dr Cameron McDonald is part of a growing field of health professionals specialising in genetic-based well-being programs.
He is CEO of ph360 Australia, a personalised program that was launched in San Diego in 2014 and is coming to our shores this month. The platform, which costs $US47 a month, captures 10,000 data points to calculate the best diet and exercise methods for each user.
“We now have the computing power and science to fully personalise,” said Dr McDonald, who is also a board member of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine.
“Created by a team of scientists over the past 15 years, the platform enables people to personalise their life, from the specific timing and type of food and exercise through to the motivational drivers and environmental factors that allow best health.”
It’s a trend that hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, Amazon reported that DNA testing kit 23andMe (ranging from US$99-$397) was among its best-selling Black Friday items. 23andMe produces personalised genetic reports for clients – including health and ancestry data – based on saliva samples.
DNA Fit is a similar program, using personal genetics captured in a saliva swab. Launched in 2013, the British program costs A$173-$436 for genetic testing that claims to show how a user’s DNA affects their response to exercise and nutrition changes.
Ph360 is different, collecting data by questioning the user and asking for body ratios rather than using saliva swabs.
“The phenotype, look, size, shape of the body tells us about the genes, hormones and internal physiology,” Dr McDonald said. “For example, waist-to-hip ratio is related to over 30 genes to do with distribution of fat and muscle around the body. The waist circumference tells us about stress … Disease history tells us about physiological state.”
— Paul Lacaze (@PaulLacaze) April 11, 2018
However, some industry leaders are cautious about relying too heavily on technology to make accurate health assessments.
Monash University researchers recently warned that online genetic testing, though fascinating, has risks. Some genetic information could be hard to interpret without medical follow-up, the testing was still largely unregulated in Australia, and the technology raised questions about privacy and confidentiality, they said.
In 2015, a British study published in BMC Medicine found 89 per cent of health apps transmitted information to online services, some without encrypting data.
Professor Karen Basen-Engquist from the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Texas said individuals should assess developers’ claims before downloading health apps.
“Most companies don’t conduct a study to determine if their app actually helped users change or improve their behaviour,” she said.
She recommended avoiding apps that made wild claims, researching developers, and checking health professionals had been involved in building the app.
Alison Patterson from Sports Dietitians Australia said online tools were not for everyone.
“It’s really important to acknowledge that in some cases it can be unhelpful for clients to use food and exercise tools as this can lead to an unhealthy, and even harmful, eating and exercise behaviours,” she said.
“Although many tracking tools offer personalised information, these are only part of the puzzle.”
She recommended using apps in conjunction with seeing an accredited sports dietitian.
Lisa Middleton, a Melbourne advanced sports dietitian and author of Super Food for Performance in Work, Sport and Life, said concerns about security meant she was careful about the personal information she shared online.
“Many exercise tracking devices are quite inaccurate when it comes to estimating energy expenditure, so relying on the numbers can lead to major discrepancies in intake versus need,” she added.
But apps could help people monitor their progress, as long as they complemented healthy habits rather than replacing them, Ms Middleton said.