Business

Boston fitness firm wants to add DNA to your diet

FitNow acknowledges that the DNA information it is selling will not on its own be the difference maker for people seeking to lose weight; rather they believe it will add persuasive, targeted information that, along with other suggestions about diet and exercise, will help consumers do a better job of staying fit.
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FitNow acknowledges that the DNA information it is selling will not on its own be the difference maker for people seeking to lose weight; rather they believe it will add persuasive, targeted information that, along with other suggestions about diet and exercise, will help consumers do a better job of staying fit.

There’s no such thing as a “fat gene,” a single genetic factor that explains our doublechins and love handles. But Boston-based FitNow Inc., maker of the popular fitness app Lose It!, said it has the next-best thing: a genetic test that generates customized diet and exercise recommendations based on a person’s unique DNA profile.

“We thought it was a great opportunity to give people a more personalized insight into the core workings of their bodies,” said Kevin McCoy, FitNow’s senior vice president of business development.

For $190, FitNow will mail customers the kit, called embodyDNA, which it said will produce a complete map of customer’s genome from a saliva sample. The process takes six to eight weeks, and FitNow said it will identify 16 genetic markers related to fitness and weight loss.

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The company said those markers could indicate, for example, that one person might be genetically predisposed to gain weight quickly when eating foods with lots of saturated fats, while another person might be unaffected. Also the test could reveal that one customer is genetically well-suited to endurance sports like long-distance running, while another would do better by lifting weights.

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Customers could integrate that data into FitNow’s weight-loss app, Lose It!, which according to the company has two to three million monthly users. The app provides customers with a daily calorie budget based on their record of eating and exercise. Based on his sugar consumption, for example, the genetic data could tell a user whether he’s at a higher-than-average risk of gaining weight fron sugary foods.

A screenshot from the Lose It app showing information from its embodyDNA test.

McCoy acknowledged there is no clinical research to prove that dieters do better when armed with information about their genetic traits. Moreover, several academic researchers expressed deep skepticism about whether FitNow’s genetic information would make any difference.

“They are very much overselling the predictive power of any of these markers for weight loss,” said Molly Bray, chair of the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Texas. “There is nothing to sell anyone right now in terms of genes that predict weight loss — there simply aren’t any identified yet that can do that robustly on an individual level.”

Ruth Loos, director of the genetics and obesity program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, said that scientists have identified rare cases in which extreme obesity is caused by genetic mutations. But Loos added, “currently, there is no genetic data that can help personalize people’s ways to lose weight, at least in the general population.”

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FitNow acknowledges that the DNA information alone will not be the difference maker for people seeking to lose weight; rather they believe it will add persuasive, targeted information that, along with other suggestions about diet and exercise, will help consumers do a better job of staying fit.

The additional genetic information, McCoy said, is “really valuable information for people to develop a personalized plan for weight loss. When people get more insights they tend to be more motivated, more engaged.”

To offer its DNA diet aid, FitNow has partnered with Helix OpCo, LLC, a San Francisco company that sequences human genomes, then shares the data with other companies that offer specialized genetic services. On Monday, Helix launched a DNA app store, where customers can purchase a variety of products and services based on information about their genomes.

A screenshot from the Lose It app.

Aside from the Lose It! fitness service, Helix offers an ancestry-tracing service from the media company National Geographic that can tell a person about his racial and ethnic heritage going back hundreds of years. Another Helix-allied company, Dot One, sells custom-made knitted scarves with the customer’s DNA patterns woven into the fabric.

Another firm, wine retailer Vinome, uses DNA data to estimate a customer’s sensitivity to various flavors, and then predict what kind of wine she might enjoy.

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Still, there’s plenty of skepticism about personalized genetic services. Medical geneticist Jim Evans, a professor at the University of North Carolina, called Vinome’s business model “completely silly,” in the publication Stat last year.

And even Helix co-founder Justin Kao admitted there’s no proof that tracing a person’s genome will help her get fit.

“We’ll find out very soon,” he said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.