Column: Dieting in the Information Age

After awaking from a Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing and mashed potato-induced coma, with a heaping slice of apple pie and ice cream on top, the idea of a diet may begin to seem appealing. (foshydog/Flickr)

After awaking from a Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing and mashed potato-induced coma, with a heaping slice of apple pie and ice cream on top, the idea of a diet may begin to seem appealing. This may be due in no small part to the stomach cramps telling you that this year you may have actually gone a bit too far in your gluttonous adventure.

Joking aside, it is no secret that obesity is a bona fide epidemic across the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control, over a third of all adults in America are overweight. To put that statistic in perspective, every third person you meet, on average, will be obese. If all of these people were brought together, there would be about 78.6 million people in total – over double the population of California – and this number is growing.

While preventative measures are absolutely necessary in order to curb obesity in later generations, especially with childhood obesity rising at an alarming rate, steps must be taken to treat those who are already overweight. Exercise is an important component of weight control but it is only part of the equation. The other half involves what we choose to put into our bodies. 

Choosing a diet can be a daunting task: Some diets try to limit fat intake. Others outlaw fats altogether. There are diets, such as the ketogenic diet, which rely primarily on fatty foods. Others, still, try to reduce carbohydrate intake. Some extoll the virtues of intermittent fasting, while some promote incessant, bird-like portions throughout the day. All of them, however, claim to work. Now, how can this be? Surely, not all of them can be right. Or can they?

A recent study conducted by Israeli researchers has discovered that different people’s bodies respond to eating the same meal in different ways. Thus, those extraordinarily fit models pushing these diets during commercials might not be lying after all. However, the diets they advertise may not be the best ones for your body in particular.

According to the Washington Post, this Israeli study came from the Weizmann Institute of Science and used a metric, known as the glycemic index (GI), that is a standard measurement for many diet plans. The GI quantifies the impact of foods on an individual’s blood sugar level and was long assumed to be a fixed value. 

This was shown to be false. 

The study pooled in the collective information of 800 healthy as well as pre-diabetic volunteers whose ages ranged from 18 to 70. They found that factors such as age and body mass index affected the GI of subjects, however this was widely assumed to be known. 

What was interesting was that the same foods produced vastly different results in different people whose data remained consistent with their other meals. In effect, this study seems to prove that old claim of everybody being “unique snowflakes”—at least in terms of diet and metabolism. 

This study also lends credence to the idea of “personalized nutrition.” Such a concept mirrors that of personalized medicine, which seeks to tailor specific treatments for individuals based on their genetic and physiological needs in relation to disease. Personalized nutrition, then, would seek to tailor meals based on certain nutritional requirements and would attempt to account for the vast diversity in which people’s bodies react to different foods. 

This shouldn’t exactly be an outlandish idea. It’s no secret that the human body is an incredibly complex and variable thing, so a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition and dieting should seem archaic by today’s standards. 

Every day we use a variety of technology—from laptops and desktops to smartphones, smart watches and fitness trackers. We are constantly emitting loads of potentially useful information that is being recorded nearly every hour of every day. It’s time we really put all of this big data to work for us. 

This multitude of nutritional information should be compiled into a resource that can be used to better inform people of what they should and should not be eating. Additionally, this should be supplemented with sound nutritional research on both a clinical and biochemical level to offer a comprehensive, scientifically accurate guide to dieting. 

In this so-called Information Age, there is the potential to use this vast reservoir of data to improve the nutritional health of America, and to curb the obesity epidemic once and for all.


Vinay Maliakal is associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at vinay.maliakal@uconn.edu.