Can You Blame Your Weight On Your Genes?
Fairlady|April 2020
We’ve heard it all before: if you just eat x and work out by doing x, you’ll lose x amount of weight in x amount of time. But what happens if none of that works for you? More and more people are turning to genetic testing for the answer.
Charis Torrance

For almost two decades, Dr Yael Joffe has studied the way nutrition and your genes interact – and her message is clear: the diet industry is… an industry. Your genes make you 100 per cent unique, and the concept of one-diet-fits-all simply cannot work. This is why more and more people around the world are turning to nutrigenomics in an effort to become optimally healthy.

Nutrigenomics vs nutrigenetics

‘I’ve done two degrees as a dietician, and we all work on the same equation when dealing with clients: what you eat, what exercise you do and how stressed you are,’ explains Dr Joffe. ‘But I’ve always felt like it was missing something.’ In her twenties she worked as a dietician in a clinic in the UK, but her heart wasn’t in it. Like many young people working abroad, she was there to earn pounds and travel around Europe.

It was 2000, we had all survived Y2K and a new fad called ‘nutrigenomics’ was starting to generate a lot of buzz. ‘I thought it sounded like science fiction,’ says Dr Joffe, ‘this idea that genes played an important role in nutrition.’ When she was approached by a UK startup company doing nutrigenomics, her interest was piqued, even though she knew nothing about genetics. Their reply? ‘Well, no dietician does.’

She’s never looked back. ‘No one ever told me that genetics can influence how we respond to foods, what kind of nutrients we should take, how we respond to exercise, how we lose and gain weight. I realised that that was the part of the equation I was missing – that everyone was missing.’

In 2004, she signed on to do her master’s at UCT: in Human Biology, as well as Physiology and Genetics. She soon upgraded to a PhD but, as there was no nutrigenomics course available, she cobbled one together, making her the first person in South Africa to do her PhD in nutrition and genetics.

Today, Dr Yael Joffe is Adjunct Professor of Nutrigenomics at Rutgers University and the Maryland University of Integrative Health, and the co-founder of 3X4 Genetics, an internationally renowned frontrunner in developing advanced genetic tests. Her 3X4 Practitioner Network operates throughout SA and internationally (a network that includes nutritionists and dieticians as well as homeopaths, chiropractors, physios, GPs and more), and has just expanded into the US.

So what is nutrigenomics? Here are the basics: all animals, plants and humans are made up of a blueprint, a genetic code that we are born with and that makes us who we are. ‘It gives us our hair colour, eye colour and height, but it’s way more than that. It goes as far as determining how we respond to our world,’ says Dr Joffe.

Each of us has three to four billion letters in our genetic code, made up of a four-letter alphabet: G, C, A and T – the DNA alphabet. In humans, our code is 99.9 per cent identical, no matter the colour of your skin or where you are from. ‘But because we’re 0,1 per cent different, it means that in three to four million places in our genetic code, you and I will have a different letter,’ explains Dr Joffe.

It may seem trivial, but these ‘spelling changes’ are what make you unique, and they come together to drive your body; the study of this is called nutrigenetics. Meanwhile, our genes are continuously impacted by even the tiniest decision we make, switching genes on and off. What we eat, how we move, our stress levels and our emotional lives affect how our genes behave. Understanding our code enables us to make healthy choices that will help us to live happier, longer and better – in a word, nutrigenomics. ‘Nutrigenetics is about insight (learning about you, what makes you different from me and how you respond to the world), but nutrigenomics looks at what we do with this information.’

Genetics and weight loss

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