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Do we know enough? A scientific and ethical analysis of the basis for genetic-based personalized nutrition

Lookup NU author(s): Professor John Mathers


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This article discusses the prospects and limitations of the scientific basis for offering personalized nutrition advice based upon individual genetic information. Two divergent scientific positions are presented, with an ethical comment. The crucial question is whether the current knowledge base is sufficiently strong for taking an ethically responsible decision to offer personalized nutrition advice based upon gene-diet-health interaction. According to the first position, the evidence base for translating the outcomes of nutrigenomics research into personalized nutritional advice is as yet immature. There is also limited evidence that genotype-based dietary advice will motivate appropriate behavior changes. Filling the gaps in our knowledge will require larger and better randomized controlled trials. According to the second position, personalized nutrition must be evaluated in relation to generally accepted standard dietary advice-partly derived from epidemiological observations and usually not proven by clinical trials. With personalized nutrition, we cannot demand stronger evidence. In several specific cases of gene-diet interaction, it may be more beneficial for individuals with specific genotypes to follow personalized advice rather than general dietary recommendations. The ethical comment, finally, considers the ethical aspects of deciding how to proceed in the face of such uncertainty. Two approaches for an ethically responsible way forward are proposed. Arguing from a precautionary approach, it is suggested that personalized dietary advice should be offered only when there is strong scientific evidence for health effects, followed by stepwise evaluation of unforeseen behavioral and psychological effects. Arguing from theoretical and applied ethics as well as psychology, it is also suggested that personalized advice should avoid paternalism and instead focus on supporting the autonomous choice of each person.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Gorman U, Mathers JC, Grimaldi KA, Ahlgren J, Nordstrom K

Publication type: Review

Publication status: Published

Journal: Genes & Nutrition

Year: 2013

Volume: 8

Issue: 4

Pages: 373-381

Print publication date: 01/07/2013

Online publication date: 08/03/2013

Acceptance date: 22/02/2013

ISSN (print): 1555-8932

ISSN (electronic): 1865-3499

Publisher: SPRINGER


DOI: 10.1007/s12263-013-0338-6