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Blood Tests and Milkshakes: Can This Weird DNA Diet Make You Healthier?

I test-drove a meal plan based on my bio-data, including my DNA, bloodwork, and metabolic rate. Is “scientific wellness” the true path to healthy living?

Every decade or so, fitness aficionados swear by a new health fad. These days, it’s all about intermittent fasting and low-carb meals–with the preferred term shifting from dieting to “body hacking.”

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Neil Grimmer, a Bay Area entrepreneur best known in organic baby food circles, thinks that we’ve been thinking about health and dieting in all the wrong ways. Everyone’s body is different, he argues, so why recommend the same meal plans for everyone? For example, some people might need more protein in their diet than others.

For his next venture, Grimmer decided to put this idea to the test. His “personalized nutrition” startup, Habit offers a series of at-home blood tests to help steer individuals down the right path. The company looks at DNA, metabolic rate, and other factors to determine a user’s “profile” (such as a “protein seeker” who would benefit from a high-protein diet) and then sells them meal plans according to that profile type. The experience isn’t cheap: The tests alone are $299 and the meals sell for $12 and $15 apiece.

Scientists and doctors I spoke to have mixed feelings about this product. Well-known systems biologist Leroy Hood is so gung-ho about the idea that he became an advisor to the company. Other specialists warn that we know far too little about the role of DNA and other biometrics to actually help us make decisions about how we eat. Several of the physicians I consulted agree that most people will get healthier if they follow some simple general principles, like eating more leafy vegetables and avoiding packaged foods–no blood extraction required.

Sugar High

With all these opinions circulating about “scientific wellness” startup Habit, I decided to give the system a try myself. I signed up for one week’s worth of food–but if you’re serious about meeting a health goal, it would be ideal to try Habit for a bit longer. Normally, I occasionally eat fish but never meat. I haven’t eaten gluten, for medical reasons, since I was a teenager. I’m not squeamish at the sight of blood and I try to eat healthily–with the exception of cocktails, chocolate, and french fries! I’m not looking to lose weight (which makes me a minority among Habit’s user base) but I’d love to have more energy in the afternoons.

After I signed up and filled out an online questionnaire about my existing eating habits, Habit delivered to me a large black box filled with blood collection equipment, including extra lancets and blood sample cards; instructional pamphlets; and a 950-calorie milkshake (yes, you read that right–950 calories). I was told to refrigerate the milkshake (to make it taste better) and start the process in the morning, preferably before 9 a.m. as I had to fast for 12 hours beforehand.

The process itself was simple enough to follow. I pricked my finger for the first blood test, chugged down the milkshake, and then took my blood twice more–once right after the milkshake, then again about an hour later. The milkshake ingredients affect the blood test results, so Habit can evaluate how users respond to fats, carbs and sugars.

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The process was simple, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. On one occasion, I had to prick my finger twice to generate enough blood to fill the sample card to the line indicated on the card. I resisted my (strong) urge to squeeze my finger to expedite the process, and instead had to wait about five-minutes for the blood to drip out on its own. The milkshake was almost overwhelmingly sweet, especially given that I don’t regularly indulge in such sugary treats (for some users, perhaps the milkshake will taste like a special treat).

Choking down two-thirds of my typical daily calorie intake in less than 4 minutes was no walk in the park. I had marked off about two hours on my calendar to complete the process, but I actually needed a little longer. After a sugar high that involved me running around my apartment like a toddler on Halloween, I passed out on my couch for a nap. (Note: Not everyone will experience this mood swing, as it depends on how much sugar is in part of your existing diet.) After I woke up, I shipped off the blood work package and awaited my results from Habit HQ.

“You’re A…..”

I received my results via email several weeks later, and set up a phone appointment with a Habit nutritionist to walk me through them in detail. It turns out that I’m a “plant seeker,” which means that I can have more flexibility with carbs in my diet, and less with fats. My initial reaction was to breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve been a vegetarian on and off (occasionally, I’ll eat a little fish) for two decades. The results seemed to reaffirm that I’m on the right track.

During our call, my Habit coach made some recommendations. I was told that I have borderline high LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), which surprised me, and that my DNA indicates that I might have a hard time metabolizing caffeine (that one shocked me: I seem to have little trouble drinking a cup or two of coffee every day)! I was told to frontload my calories in the morning and eat smaller meals throughout the day, which made sense (because our metabolism slows down at night while we are asleep) but didn’t seem particularly unique to me. We also reviewed a list of my personal “super foods,” which include brussels sprouts and lean fish like tuna.

The coaching call felt similar to other experiences I’ve had with dietitians and nutritionists, albeit slightly more personal. A lot of the advice would have made sense for anyone, although there were some useful nuggets. I was told that I could indulge in my daily chocolate treat, but to try to stick to the dark stuff and limit my intake to morning times. “Chocolate is a beautiful thing that should be encouraged,” my dietician Jae Berman told me, which was music to my ears. Another practical suggestion: To switch to low or nonfat milk, a recommendation I have been strictly following in the weeks since the call.

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Overall, it mostly felt like an especially pricey hour with a nutritionist. But once Habit starts to add other tests to its repertoire, like testing for gluten sensitivity, it’s likely that more people will want to invest in getting tested. Moreover, countless studies have shown that personalization is an important component to behavioral change (it’s a psychological thing), so the combination of the tests and coaching might work well for some people.

The Meal Plan

A few days after the coaching call, I received a week’s worth of food in the mail. I chose to eat the majority of my meals with Habit and cancelled my plans to dine out with friends, but other users can select a more flexible option if they so wish.

As far as the food itself is concerned, Habit is part of a big trend of companies selling healthy meal options. Previously, the emphasis in the meal delivery industry seemed to be on delivering fast and cheap eats. Nowdays, however, studies find that millennials will pay more for healthy food than previous generations.

The food was an overall hit for me, with a few misses. Both the breakfast options were delicious: I wolfed down the overnight oats topped with organic coldbrew coffee, maple syrup, dates, and pistachios. I also loved the egg frittata, which came with a side of grapes and arugula. Another favorite from the week was the black bean chili with rainbow chard and potatoes. The salmon and eggplant parmesan were a little dry–I’d recommend eating them at the beginning of the week. What I appreciated most was the transparency: Each meal came with a full breakdown of its calories, as well as daily macros like the amount of fats, carbs and proteins.

For the record, I didn’t lose or gain any weight during this experience–but I didn’t expect to in less than a week. That isn’t to say Habit didn’t have an effect on my behavior. Almost a month later, I still try to avoid that second cup of coffee each day, and I’ve permanently switched to low-fat milk. I do feel like I’ve gained a little more energy in the afternoons by snacking on a healthy pick-me-up (like nuts or cheese)–a suggestion from my Habit coach.

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But would I recommend the Habit experience to friends? Maybe. It’s not ideal for those who are on a budget, given the expense, but it might well prove beneficial for those who are genuinely curious and have a specific goal in mind, like reducing their cholesterol levels. Ultimately, I do agree with the shift toward personalized health–but only time will tell whether Habit will catch on with the masses.

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About the author

Christina Farr is a San Francisco-based journalist specializing in health and technology. Before joining Fast Company, Christina worked as a reporter for VentureBeat, Reuters and KQED.

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