Different people respond differently to different foods. This is partly because we all have different genes, and our genes can affect the way our bodies deal with food. Because of this, particular food components will be more helpful to some people than to others.
Food has different effects on different people
Our bodies need to be able to absorb the right amount of different food components, store them in the right places, and use them at the right time. All of this is controlled by our genes.
A person's genes therefore affect what happens to the food that is eaten. As a result, two different people can eat the same food, but it has different effects on them. For example, two people can eat the same amount of fatty food, and one will put on weight a lot faster than the other.
Nutrigenomics: What is it?
Nutrigenomics is the study of how our food and our genes interact. The main aim is to use information about genes to work out the effects that foods can have on an individual’s health, performance, and risk of disease.
Nutrigenomics New Zealand is made up of a group of researchers from Plant & Food Research, AgResearch and the University of Auckland. These organisations are have formed a research group called Nutrigenomics New Zealand. Each organisation has specialist expertise needed in order to reach a common goal.
The New Zealand researchers will first be focusing on people who have, or who might develop, inflammatory bowel disease.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) includes diseases such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. It affects the digestive system, causing inflammation and swelling of parts of the digestive tract. Symptoms of the disease may include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea, constipation, bleeding and lack of appetite. Visit the Crohn’s and Colitis Support Group to get more information.
Susceptibility to IBD
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is often found in more than one person from the same family. This suggests that there might be a genetic link to getting the disease.
In fact, recent research has shown that people who have IBD often have one or more gene variants. These slight variations in the genetic code seem to increase the risk that someone will develop IBD. The onset of the disease also seems to be affected by the foods that are eaten and other environmental factors.
Unfortunately it is not easy to identify foods that should be avoided. There is no ‘best diet’ – different people find that different foods relieve the symptoms, or make them worse. This is because each person has different genes, and their genes affect the way that their bodies respond to the food.
The nutrigenomics research team will be trying to work out the best (and worst) foods for individual patients, based on their genetic profiles. The researchers will also be trying to work out eating patterns that might help to reduce the risk that family members who have affected genes will also get the disease.
Collecting patient information
The first task is to find out as much as possible about people who have IBD. This requires a group of volunteers who agree to participate in the study.
The researchers will collect details about each person's physical characteristics, disease history, diet and lifestyle. They will also collect information about whether or not family members have had the disease – this would suggest a genetic link.
Get information sheet: Studying genetic disease: Finding out about the person
A second part of the research is to find out about gene variants that may be linked to the disease.
Get information sheet: Studying genetic disease: Finding out about the genes
The next step will be to try to find patterns between people's genetic combinations and their dietary preferences. For example, patients with a particular genetic combination might all report that a particular food makes their disease symptoms worse. This will help the researchers to start thinking about specific foods for specific people.
Testing foods in the laboratory
Foods are very complex substances and contain thousands of different molecules. Each food might contain molecules that are helpful, and molecules
that are less helpful. Because of this, the foods must first be separated into components.
Get information sheet: Separating out foods into component molecules
Get worksheet: Extraction and analysis of fruit components
The effects of the separated food components are tested in a laboratory. One of the ways that researchers can do this is using laboratory models like cell lines.
Get information sheet: Using laboratory models to test the effects of food
One of the early aims of the research is to identify foods that are likely to be especially helpful for people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) who have particular genetic combinations. These foods might also help protect people from getting inflammatory bowel disease if a particular genetic combination is known to run in their family.
Understanding interactions between diet and genes will help us to better manage complex diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Knowledge about gene-diet interactions could also be used to help optimise an individual's physical and mental performance, and even slow the effects of aging.
- 01 May 2006