Can Getting Your DNA Tested Help You Optimize Your Diet and Training?

DNA moleculesLast month, I received an unexpected email request from a man named Craig Pickering: “Send me your saliva.”

Craig works for DNAFit, a genetic testing company using customers’ DNA results to optimize their diet and training. He’s a former Olympic 100 m and bobsleigh (bobsled to us Yanks) athlete, and a longtime reader of the blog, who’s helping elite athletes, weekend warriors, and regular folks alike discover their genes’ preferred diet and training style.

Intrigued, I received the testing kit and sent the sample back. Sure, why not? I’m game.

The results came back quickly, which I’ll summarize:

“You tolerate caffeine well.”

“You tolerate lactose well.”

“You are very unlikely to develop celiac disease.”

“You can recover from training quickly, from a genetic standpoint.”

“You have a higher than average soft tissue injury risk. This doesn’t mean you definitely will get injured, just that you should expect recurrent tendon, ligament, and connective tissue issues.”

“You have a 57-43 endurance:power split. This means that you generally respond better to endurance exercise, but you also respond pretty well to power-based training.”

“You have a high sensitivity to carbs, which means that you tolerate them poorly in regards to body weight control and general health.”

“Your fat tolerance is higher than your carb tolerance.”

“You have an elevated genetic need for omega-3 fats and vitamin D. You have versions of certain inflammation genes that predispose you to higher baseline levels of inflammation, which omega-3s specifically regulate.”

None of these results were surprising. Instead, they confirmed an assortment of intuitive conclusions I had come to over the course of my life.

I love my morning cup of coffee and never experience any sleep issues as a result, even on the rare occasion I have a cup in the afternoon.

I’m Scandinavian, an ethnic group with almost ubiquitous lactose tolerance, so my ability to handle dairy was completely expected. I don’t drink milk at all, but I do loves cheese and butter.

I can get away with some quality bread and butter when out to eat at a good restaurant, or a bite of grain-based dessert. Even though I don’t make it a habit, a bite or two doesn’t wreck me like it would a person with celiac or clinical gluten sensitivity. On the other hand, I’ve learned through trial and error that more than a few bites of bread will cause problems the next day.

Workout recovery was usually a breeze for me. Well, let me rephrase that: I always felt “up” for another training session, even if I probably should have rested.

Tendon issues have always been my nemesis. That finding was interesting to see. I wonder if part of it’s due to my increased ability to recover from and re-engage in exercise letting me get back to training before my connective tissue is ready to go again. The muscles and cardio system recover a lot quicker than tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. As I’m getting older, those issues become even more apparent. In fact, I am currently trying to overcome an Achilles’ issue that has plagued me for months.

My 57% endurance to 43% power makeup was extremely intriguing, because while I was a tried and true endurance guy during my peak competitive years, I’ve become more of a power athlete in recent years, strength training, playing Ultimate, and sprinting more than anything. At first glance, that’s a high power value for an elite marathoner and Ironman triathlete–endeavors that are almost entirely aerobic and require little explosive power. I almost wonder if my genetics were better suited to a focus on sprint triathlons, or the 3,000 meter steeplechase, or even the mile.

Hmm, too late now.

Notice that I’m highly sensitive to carbs. If it wasn’t for my extreme athletic background, I’d likely be a “skinny-fat” guy. But just because my lifestyle allows me to eat carbs without gaining fat, I still choose not to eat many. I’m more concerned with the functional considerations about my carb sensitivity. I feel lousy on a high-carb diet and do much better with higher fat.

Being Scandinavian also explains my genetic need for omega-3s and vitamin D. Oily, cold water fish was a huge component of northern latitude coastal diets and often the only reliable source of vitamin D in the area, since anything north of the 60th parallel (Alaska, Canadian Northern Territories, most of Norway, Sweden and Finland, top half of Russia) receives very little “actionable” UVB from the sun.

On the vitamin D, my ancestry delivers a “raised” need score, but what the computer didn’t realize is that I live at much lower latitude than my ancestors. Whereas they satisfied their needs with oily, vitamin D-rich fish (and the occasional raiding party to southerly locales), I have met my raised need very easily since I bailed on my childhood home of Maine for California decades ago. As long as I get my daily dose of sun, I’m good to go.

What’s my overall take on the results and DNAFit in general?

Anyone who’s read my blog (particularly the piece on blood pressure tests) knows how little stock I take in lab tests as a barometer of overall health. Whether it’s BP, cholesterol, testosterone, thyroid or any other of the usual battery of biomarkers, what we get is just a snapshot of one point in time in an often very dynamic range for each vital area. It’s like looking at a poster of Cool Hand Luke and trying to predict what will happen in the movie.

Cool Hand Luke

The difference here is that in DNA testing we have a static, immutable recipe that doesn’t change over time, but is profoundly affected by the epigenetic inputs we decide to present. And that’s where the power of getting evaluated by the guys at DNAFit emerges: as a roadmap for potential epigenetic triggers we ultimately control.

I’m “good” at endurance training. I’m “built for” it. But my genetic proclivity didn’t give me a free pass to all the training I wanted without side effects. It didn’t lead to greater health or the promised land of physical perfection and optimal longevity. In fact, it actually set me up for health issues. Endurance training came so naturally to me that I lost myself in it and opened myself up to decades of chronic overtraining, connective tissue issues, poor gut health, and reliance on an unhealthy amount of carbohydrate.

All that said, this was an illuminating, informative experience for me, and I’d urge anyone who’s at all interested in their genetic predisposition for certain diets and training methodologies to give DNAFit a look. These guys are professionals who know what they’re doing and, as long as you understand that the results don’t indicate your destiny and that you can alter the expression of the genes through diet, exercise, and lifestyle, you can benefit from their input.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out the latest Primal Blueprint Podcast in which host Brad Kearns sits down to talk with one of the fastest guys in the world, Olympic athlete Andrew Steele of DNAFit.

BONUS: Some of you have asked for a discount code. DNAFit has offered one to Mark’s Daily Apple readers. Use the code PRIMALBLUEPRINT when ordering the Fitness Diet Pro Kit and receive 30% off, bringing the price from $399 to $279. Expires at the end of March, 2015.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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54 thoughts on “Can Getting Your DNA Tested Help You Optimize Your Diet and Training?”

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  1. I want this! Thanks for the review! It’s fairly expensive to get the full work up- do you think they’d let you offer a discount to your readers? I know companies often do that.

      1. Hey, you can upload your 23andme info. into Athletigen for free and get most of the same results. Check the site out. They update it all the time too. Always free!

        1. Very interesting, some things like being a slow or fast metabolizer of caffeine are included with 23andme results. Looking at Athletigen, does it only give info about personal athletic traits, or does it include the info like carbs and fat requirements that the DNAfit gave Mark?

        2. It’s not as technical at this point, but it is free and they are updating vitamins and foods. They promise more to come. I’ve learned a lot already. So I’d rather not pay $400 plus and still get some decent info. Hope that helps.

    1. Remember what happened to 23andMe? Because the FDA threw a fit over BRCA readings, people can’t get their APO-E type tested any more!

      1. Read Denise Minger, I believe you can get that info. for free through Genetic Genie or Promethease. I’ve done that! There are ways to get this info.

  2. Very interesting, Mark. I do wonder how much of these findings, if any, are actually a result of your being Paleo/Primal.

    1. I don’t think so. Lifestyle can change the expression of the genes (epigenetics) but not the genes themselves (DNA – what Mark had tested here).

      I think DNA testing can be very useful for things such as MTHFR mutations – things you can’t just guess, as opposed to caffeine and lactose (in-)tolerance.

      Very interesting stuff indeed!

  3. Eagerly awaiting the next step…gene splicing to correct any relative deficiencies.

    1. A lot of my relatives have deficiencies…but I love them anyway.

  4. Just ordered this…what’s great is that if you already have DNA submitted to 23 and Me, they can use that and you don’t need to submit another sample. Yes, I am a DNA nerd 😉

  5. Awesome stuff! I’d be interested to see what it says about me…

    “You tolerate bacon cheeseburgers well.”

  6. 23andMe provided some confirmation bias to certain types of training I’ve always been best at. Interesting to see more companies providing value with the information from testing.

  7. There’s also a company in Baton Rouge, Simplified Genetics and their Simply Fit test (costs $479) that sequences your DNA and gives an individual prescription for: 1) whether high intensity training or long, slow cardio training is best for you, duration and frequency of exercises, and a routine for one week of exercises, 2) daily percentages of fat, carbohydrates, and proteins you should try to eat for optimum health and weight, 3) what vitamin and mineral supplements you should take for your genotype and to maintain healthy energy levels. Simply swab the inside of your cheek and mail it in (paying the fee, of course), receive the report plus recommendations via email.

    1. I go with 23andme for $99 then go to Athletigen with that info. and get most of the same sports info. for free.

      1. Being a professional athlete what would be the best/most accurate site to use, providing feedback in all avenues of nutrition, recovery and exercise selection?

  8. Genome analysis is really really cool and there is definitely a lot one can learn for looking at your personal polymorphisms but this is really stretching the limits of what can be acted on. The problem with these kinds of services is that while there are statistical associations between some traits and common DNA variations, the effect of any individual association is very small. Meaning that yes, an A here instead of a T in a group of white males (the people that most of the studies are done on) found that they could tolerate caffine by a statistically significant but very small amount. All bets are off for anyone else and except for a handful of traits with strong effect sizes, I wouldn’t take anything this guy is selling seriously. And I say that as a someone who loves personal genomics, I’ve gotten my 23andMe genotyping done and am seriously considering whole genome sequencing.

    1. It sound great but I got a bit suspicious. I do understand that there are statistical associations between genetics and phenotypic trait, but I firstly believe that many of the findings are common to all of as and secondly, that Mark’s eating habits are deeply described in this blog. The first part refers more to the feeling of reading the horoscope, or that kind of thing. I do know that there are many studies trying to link genetics modifications to phenotypic traits, but I’m not convinced that we’ve arrived at the state of being able to identify these types of traits at the individual level when they are multi-genetic traits and with the layer of extra complexity from the epigenetics (environment). I am not saying that this study is a prank, but If I were making this studies I will support my genetic finding with the google’s ones. I am sorry if my words disappointed anyone!

  9. I was looking for Mark to comment on the “sensitive to saturated fat” marker. Whenever I see this kind of thing I’m dying to know whether they’re lumping trans-fats in with it or what exactly they mean. Does anyone know?

  10. “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” – Cool Hand look…one of my favorite movies of time past. I had to toss this in. (;

    Mark, It’s nice to have your dietary choices confirmed by DNA testing. It would have been interesting, if the test would also point out mental markers (i.e. the way we handle stress and suggestion on combating it), knowing that stress is something you (and many of us) are effected by.

  11. I got tested at 23&me after I heard Dr. Ben Lynch discuss MTHFR mutation on a paleo podcast. I do, indeed, have the MTHFR mutation (just one copy), plus a whole lot of other SNPs that mess with my processing of folate, B12, sulfites and medications. It was not surprising since I knew I couldn’t drink wine without getting a headache (sulfites) and have battled with mild fatigue and winter blues for most of my adult life (folate/B12). My daughter was born with a congenital heart defect (a midline body defect that can occur in babies of moms with MTHFR mutation), even though I was taking folic acid (which I learned too late my body can’t process, so doesn’t help with birth defects). Now, I’m working on healing my gut, which enables me to tolerate low doses of B12 and folate in the end-form that my body can use and doesn’t have to make. I’ve been primal for 3 years, but never took vitamins, minerals, etc., so I’ve learned so much about support supplements (both for metabolism/ATP and for gut healing) that help me process B12 and folate. It’s been a real eye-opener. MTHFR mutations are not rare.

    1. This is SO interesting. Where did you take your 23&me results to learn about the MTHFR mutation?

      1. Go to Genetic Genie with your 23andme results. It’s $5 bucks to see what your good, bad and indifferent mutations are.

        1. You can also try, which is being revamped and gives a longer report with more genes. Their report is slightly more, $30 ($10 through the end of Feb 2015). The one drawback is that they include the genes but not the SNPs for them, when contacted they said they would be adding the SNPs in a future update, current subscribers would get the update at no charge.

          Here is more info on how you can use this information to optimize diet:

    2. I have 2 copies of the MTHFR mutation. I’m very lucky that I learned that over the summer before I became pregnant because I knew to take l-methylfolate instead of folic acid. You’d think that OB/Gyns would test for that given that it can have such serious consequences, but they don’t. I would never have known if I hadn’t seen a functional medicine doctor and demanded these types of tests on my own.

      1. Unfortunately standard medicine has not figured this out yet, my husband has 2 copies of the main MTHFR mutation, but our family doctor dismissed the effects as “unproven science” when told about the report.

  12. I’m surprised at how accurate the test is. I would be interested in testing myself!

  13. Thanks, Mark, that is really interesting. Also, really enjoyed Brad’s interview with Andrew Steele of DNAfit. For people who haven’t listened yet, a discount is offered on the podcast.

  14. I am grateful to all my Sami,Finnish,Swedish ancestors for drinking reindeer milk for millennia and thereby breeding all the lactose intolerance out of my DNA. Another cafe latte please, and perhaps a spot of Wensleydale. Soy? Feh!

  15. Sounds interesting… just not interesting enough at even the discounted price, unfortunately.

  16. In the science explained section on their website it says ‘the level of scientific study is in general very high and is of similar quality to the scientific evidence used to justify standard dietary advice such as high fruit and vegetables, low saturated fats, low sugars etc’.

    Well that doesn’t convince me!

  17. Hi Mark,

    I’m writing your from Portugal and i am such a huge fan of your work which i think it’s ABSolutely brilliant!

    I have recently bought your book and i have learned soooooooo much with it!

    My question is about this DNA testing and DNAfit. Is this testing based on solid science, or is it more of a “new thing/technology” that has all the fundamental principles behind it (genetic markers, for instance) but has not yet been tested by science?

    I think that if this testing does provide valuable and scientifically approved DNA analysis it is completely worth the money, but i still feel a bit skeptical about this DNA testing validity to be honest, as i think some of your readers will feel too.

    Can you please share your thoughts on this?



  18. I did the 23andme (Thanks for that suggestion, everyone) and then imported to Athletigen only to find out my metabolism is WAY slow.. which I thought already. Sadly, it said my metabolism is only faster than 1% of the population, which means that it’s slower than 99%! Curses!
    I can tolerate caffeine though, yay!

  19. I think the key aspects of DNA testing have to do with methylation capabilities (MTHFR C677T), and how well you handle saturated fats (Apo B). These gene markers help regulate homocysteine (sticky blood marker) in the 1st case, and sdLDLs in the 2nd case.

  20. Mark:

    Can you give us any citations to scientific
    literature to back up the idea that one can
    base a diet on DNA testing? Sorry if you
    have and I missed them. Could someone
    point them out?

  21. I don’t think the guys at DNAfit test for methylome status, rather, just for SNPs.
    So some of your genes may have a healthy haplotype by sequence, but may be totally shut off by methylation or histone modifications.
    I’m suspecting its a tale of a tailored result here.
    Everyone knows our fabulous and knowledeable Mark…

  22. This review is for the ordering process and customer service as I never received the product. Quite disappointed as I had high hopes for this company and the services they provide. I was received to find this useful so I could recommend this to my 1000+ fitness and nutrition clients.
    I work in Costa Rica and the mail system is not the best for International packages. I had a trusted friend coming down from the states soon so I contacted customer service to see if it was possible to receive this before my friends departure. At first I was told, “I can confirm id you pick FedEx it will arrive in 1 or 2 days.” That seemed unrealistic to me and I asked again. “After talking to our shipping department, I can confirm it will arrive in 3-4 working days by FedEx Priority.” It seemed strange to me that a customer service person would not know the answer to a very basic shipping question, but this was enough time so I went to the website to order. The website was not functioning properly – every time I switched it to the US site it kept switching back to the UK. I tried several browsers same thing. it would also not accept any coupon code. I took a break and tried again first thing in the morning. After trying customer service and not getting through went back to the website and after 45 minutes got my order to go through. I sent an email to the customer service person with my order number and again reiterated my time constraint and asked if they could see that the order was shipped before Christmas. AT 5am on 12/29 I received an email stating that my order had shipped and as I choose standard shipping it will take 2 or 3 weeks to reach our international clients. I quickly wrote back explaining I had chosen FedEx International Priority (The fastest shipping available) as I had already explained several times my time constraints and provided a copy of my receipt that clearly shows I did indeed choose FedEX International Priority. I was sent a quick note saying they would look into it. Two full business days have passed now and I have sent 2 additional emails trying to see if this could be resolved. No response – no answer.
    Mistakes happen, but when a company does not respond or try to resolve the issue in any way, it is hard to recommend to any one, doing business with them.

    1. Hi John,

      So sorry for the trouble! I’ve passed your comment along to my contact at DNAFit. Someone should be contacting you very soon!

  23. Howdy

    All this genetic testing is interesting but can get expensive for the average Joe.

    Could a thrifty set of identical twins save a few bucks and just get 1 of the twins tested?