Today is National Ice Cream Pie Day. (It’s also the third week of National Crayon Collection Month, but who’s counting?) You know whose arteries ice cream pie is good for? No one. Plain and simple. But Habit, one of the latest disrupters in the food tech sector, suggests we rethink the very notion of foods that are good for everyone or bad for everyone. It’s part of a movement toward what is called personalized nutrition.
Habit, based in the San Francisco Bay area, tests for biomarkers and genetic variants using samples you provide, then generates a personalized report about how your body responds to food. It’s your unique “nutrition blueprint.” Then the company pairs you with a nutrition coach and offers you custom-made meals, containing your ideal ratio of carbs, fats and protein, delivered to your home. All in the name of sending you on the path to a new you.
I had to see for myself. So I endured the home test and shipped off my blood and DNA samples. (Gulp.) Then the company’s chief executive walked me through the results of my newfound eater identity, and I observed how the diagnosis began to affect my relationship with food. Here’s what happened — and what it could mean for the future of eating in America.
The Habit home kit is not for the faint of heart. After fasting for 10 hours, you answer lots of deeply personal questions, scrub DNA samples from your cheeks and puncture your fingertips with a self-pricking button (technical term: “lancet”). This sounds rough, but my lowest moment is actually chugging their special Habit Challenge™ Shake. It clocks in at 950 calories, 75 grams of sugar and 130 percent of daily saturated fat intake. It has a taste and smell I can only liken to Kahlúa. It makes me feel god-awful while drinking it — nose pinched, pinkie out, face scrunched — and even worse afterward. It was bad enough I had sacrificed my Saturday morning frittata ritual.
By the third blood sample, my dining table looks like a crime scene. I’ve got bandages on two fingers, mini disinfectant pads strewn around, and cherry red blood dripping down my forearm. I’m angling my elbow like a helicopter hovering over the little blood collection card, just trying to fill the darn box one last time so I can move on with my day. Finally, I pack it up and mail it all off in a rather alarming biohazard bag. The whole ordeal takes about three hours and costs $309.
I’m told I’ll receive my results in a few weeks. While I wait, I wander back to the Habit website and take a closer look at those pages and pages of fine print. I start to have second thoughts at sentences like, “You may experience stress, anxiety, or emotional or physical discomfort when you learn about health problems or potential health problems.”
Then there’s this: “Recommendations regarding diet provided to you may or may not be beneficial to you and may cause or exacerbate certain medical problems.”
Thankfully, when the results come in, I get labeled a “Range Seeker.” In official Habit-speak, it means “you can be flexible with your macronutrient intake and thrive on a range of foods.” Well, that’s a relief.
There are seven Habit types, each with dozens of more specific sub-variations, varying from “Slow Seeker” (best suited for foods rich in fiber and carbs that are absorbed slowly) to “Fat Seeker” (“fat is a valuable fuel source for you”). Along with receiving your tribal designation, you’re assigned a personalized eating plan, depicting your ideal plate, suggested nutrient goals and daily calorie target.
I’d be lying if I said the results haven’t been affecting my food choices, or at least the way I feel about my food choices. For instance, since being told I have a genetic risk variant associated with slow production of omega-3s, I have been seeking salmon like a grizzly bear. Apparently, I’m also genetically predisposed to caffeine sensitivity. Many a morning, this news has me sitting at my desk thinking I must be tripping out on my cup of joe — despite the fact that I have consumed the exact same amount of coffee every day of my adult life.
On the face of it, personalized nutrition makes sense. Why wouldn’t I want to understand the unique dietary yearnings and land mines of my own DNA? Many people seem to feel that the existing national dietary guidance of one-size-fits-all has failed them. They’re sick, and they’re confused about what to buy and what to order.
But in reducing food to individualized nutrient optimization — equating food with fuel, really — what are we sacrificing? What are the implications for our food culture and the future of dining? “Oh, gosh, I’d love to go out for sushi with you, but I have to scurry home to my prearranged ‘Range Seeker’ box in the fridge.”
Neil Grimmer, Habit’s founder and chief executive, recognizes that food is social. He tells me that it “knots us together culturally,” so Habit is in the process of facilitating online communities for people with the same Habit type. Through a private Facebook page, they could share tips and the like. It’s better than going it alone, I guess, but a far cry from actually sharing a meal.
Remember the $300 you put down for the home test? It includes a coaching session, so a nutritionist helps you put all your information into practice. During my session, Jae Berman, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and head coach of Habit, is a great help. But things don’t look so rosy when I ask her how I’m supposed to integrate Habit into regular life.
“The family conversation has been one of the most common questions we have gotten,” she says. “It doesn’t occur to me as a problem because I just want people to take ownership of their story . . . have the empowerment to say, ‘This is what my plate looks like; that’s what your plate needs to look like,’ and move on.” Even, she says, if that means everyone at the table eating something different. Have you ever tried being the short-order cook in that scenario? It all but requires outsourcing the meal making.
Imagine, Berman says, a mom who’s stressed out, with kids running around, “a husband who is a rail,” all the while she has no time for herself, is struggling with her weight, and trying to figure out what on earth to cook for dinner. “Most people don’t want to talk about uncomfortable things,” Berman says. “But let your kids eat mac and cheese, let your husband do what he needs, and let you have this plate for your dinner. You don’t need to do anything — it’s going to show up at your door.”
This desire to customize our food experiences stems from the uniquely American trait of individualism. Often subconscious, it’s a desire to be exceptional, distinct from those around us, as opposed to being part of a larger collective. By contrast, many other cultures around the world are characterized by interdependence. It turns out, individualism shapes our eating habits in stunning ways, from the rise of solo dining to customization as a firmly expected attribute of eating out.
Habit is the latest example of a new technology enabling that innate premium on personalization, and over time, these tools are pulling us further and further from the table. Think smartphones making us feel less alone while eating alone, and mobile ordering apps allowing us to tailor our meal delivery times and our restaurant orders with greater precision. With roughly half of all eating occasions now taking place when we’re by ourselves, we’re getting less and less practiced at eating with others.
This reality has major implications for our food culture, and for the rising rates of social isolation in the United States. You know what the single greatest predictor of happiness is? Social connectedness. And guess what: It’s one of the greatest predictors of longevity, too.
Of course I want people to eat food that’s right for them. But we also have to ask ourselves: Which is really going to make us live longer, and live better? The ability to pay more granular attention to our triglyceride levels, or the more holistic benefits of eating with family and friends?
My grandmother turned 100 this year. Between the birthday parties and the bridge club, her standing dinner dates and the three times a day she picks up her neighbors in their retirement home hallway to take their walkers down to the dining hall, a thriving social life is Alma’s secret to a long life. Whether I’m chomping on my salad, face glued to my iPhone, or waving off her breakfast offer by citing the low-glycemic Kind bar I just finished off, she tells me time after time: She’d take the cake — and the friendships — any day.
Egan is author of “Devoured: How What We Eat Defines Who We Are” (William Morrow/HarperCollins), recently released in paperback.
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