Personalized Algorithmic Diets: Promising or Impractical?

John Egan - The Upside Blog

by | Updated: December 4th, 2016 | Read time: 5 minutes

If you’re a math or computer geek, you’re undoubtedly familiar with algorithms. For the non-nerds among us, algorithms are  computerized step-by-step instructions that help us solve problems or perform tasks. Google’s algorithms look for “clues” to deliver the search results you’re seeking. Various algorithms guide investment strategies. Police departments rely on algorithms to station cops where they’re needed most.

Are Algorithmic Diets Key to Weight Loss?

Now, we’re being told that number-crunching algorithms could help us shed unwanted pounds. Some nutrition experts aren’t sold on the concept, though.

According to The Atlantic, two scientists at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science have come up with an algorithm, based on 137 factors and several health tests, that predicts how a person’s blood sugar responds to various foods. The algorithm also could pave the way for personalized dietary advice. While many of the diets created for the scientists’ volunteers were “deeply unorthodox” — including recommendations for moderate amounts of alcohol, chocolate and ice cream — the tailored eating plans proved effective in controlling blood sugar levels, according to The Atlantic.

Weizmann researchers Eran Segal and Eran Elinav describe their Personalized Nutrition Project as “a large-scale nutrition initiative that aims to help people make food choices that are better for their health and well-being. We take an unbiased scientific approach to nutrition that combines the collection of a wide range of information and the development of accurate predictive algorithms.”

In simpler language, New York magazine says Segal and Elinav’s research suggests that an algorithm “can predict how individuals’ bodies will respond to certain foods, thus creating a tailored meal plan for each according to his or her own unique bacterial profile.” The magazine emphasizes that this research is preliminary and that broadly applying it to weight loss likely is years away.

Skeptics Sound Off

For the time being, some nutrition experts aren’t champing at the bit to adopt algorithmic dieting.

Licensed psychologist Alexis Conason, whose New York City practice focuses on issues such as overeating disorders and weight-loss surgery, maintains that there’s no need for personalized algorithmic diets. Rather, she suggests that we count on the personalized diets already available to all of us — our “appetitive systems,” which signal when we’re hungry, what we should eat and how much we should eat.

“It seems absurd to go through a high-tech personalized diet plan when people can just tune into their own signals using techniques like mindful eating,” says Conason, author of The Anti Diet Blog. “It is a commentary on the state of our culture that we think we need to go through this whole process of invasive testing to tell us what we already innately know. If we can only relearn how to trust ourselves and listen to our bodies.”

Nutrition consultant Adina Fradkin, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian/nutritionist in Annapolis, Maryland, who specializes in eating disorders, falls into Conason’s camp.

“I am not a proponent of algorithmic diets. I use a non-diet approach in the work that I do,” Fradkin says. “For me, I find that my clients struggle to connect with their bodies, and diets actually make it much harder to foster this mind-body connection.”

Chiropractic doctor Scott Schreiber, a certified nutritionspecialist and licensed dietitian/nutritionist in Newark, Delaware, isn’t a fan of algorithmic diets, either.

“These are very impersonal and lack the art of crafting dietary suggestions. These computer programs are only useful for the average person,” Schreiber says. “The problem with dieting is that no one is average. Everyone has unique needs. A computer program cannot be there to counsel the patient each visit and will not make appropriate changes on the fly. A computer has no compassion or empathy.”

Cookie-Cutter Diets?

Liza Baker, a health coach in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says she’s fascinated by scientific innovations such as personalized algorithmic diets and thinks the potential for such advancements is “enormous.” However, she says, the science behind developments like algorithmic diets simply boils down to old-fashioned common sense.

One person’s food is another one’s poison, and nothing is worse for a health practitioner than to see clients losing their health because they are strictly adhering to a diet that worked for someone who then wrote a book about it and convinced everyone to go vegan/Paleo/fruitarian/fill in the blank. It just doesn’t hold for everyone else,” Baker says.

She adds: “It’s extremely gratifying to coach clients to experiment with their diets in a sane way, log their progress with curiosity rather than judgment, and find their way to radiant health in addition to an appropriate weight by coming up with that works for them.”

On that point, Segal and Elinav seem to agree.

“We are all different,” the researchers say on their website. “Therefore, general recommendations about food may not be good for everyone. Here, we intend to make food selection a personalized process, as it should be.”

Better Than ‘Food Fascism’?

Dr. Michael Pickert, a physician in Livingston, New Jersey, and author of “I’m Michael and I Was Fat: Eating Less and Loving It,” says personalized algorithmic dieting actually stands a better chance of success than “food fascism,” referring to questionable weight-loss methods such as pills and powders. But he stops short of embracing algorithmic dieting.

Instead, Pickert says he’s found positive results in studying what overweight people are eating and working with them to cut calories.

“With the proper education, they can make smarter choices on their own. Later, the education process continues as we review what they have chosen and why,” he says.

The Hunt for ‘Effortless’ Dieting

Clinical psychologist Joseph Luciani of New Jersey, author of the new book “Thin From Within: The Powerful Self-Coaching Program for Permanent Weight Loss,” also believes in delving into the “why” of eating. Today’s fad diets have led us down a path of “chronic yo-yo dieting,” he says.

“Sadly, for many, losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight may seem difficult — if not impossible,” Luciani says. “And yet, in spite a lifetime of countless frustrations with destructive eating habits — habits that inevitably resurface — the search for that elusive, mythical, effortless diet continues. And it will continue as long as we keep ignoring one simple truth: Losing weight and keeping it off has less to do with what you eat and just about everything to do with why you eat it.”

While Luciani and fellow nutrition experts may be skeptical, many people who are eager to lose weight are not: The Washington Post says more than 4,000 people are on the waiting list for Segal and Elinav’s follow-up study.

After combing through data from the first study, Segal says, “I think about the possibility that maybe we’re really conceptually wrong in our thinking about the obesity and diabetes epidemic. The intuition of people is that we know how to treat these conditions, and it’s just that people are not listening and are eating out of control — but maybe people are actually compliant but in many cases we were giving them wrong advice.”`