Making Sure to Keep the Person in Personalized Nutrition | Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior (SNEB)

Making Sure to Keep the Person in Personalized Nutrition

Posted by: on Monday November 21, 2022

Personalized nutrition focuses on the concept that individuals may respond very differently to foods and may require different dietary patterns to achieve the best health.  Personalized or precision nutrition falls under the umbrella of personalized medicine, a medical model that calls for medical practices, interventions, and products to be customized to the individual based on their risk of disease. Personalized medicine relies upon an individual’s genetic profile to identify the most appropriate path forward for disease prevention and treatment. The concepts of personalized medicine are a product of the Human Genome Project.1

The prospect of individual tailoring medical decisions, including diet and activity regimens, is exciting in that it could improve the effectiveness of interventions aimed at preventing or treating chronic illness. In thinking about personalized nutrition as one of the next “hot topics” for research, I’ve wondered about how we keep the whole person, including their culture, their behaviors, and their foodways linked to their specific genetic makeup and risk. That is, how do we keep the person and their individual stories and experiences in personalized nutrition?

This issue of JNEB includes 2 articles that have relevance to this question. The first, by Ajami and colleagues,2 investigates the use of narrative-focused group counseling as part of an obesity treatment program for Iranian women. As described by the authors, narrative counseling seeks to recognize that patients can act as experts in the story of their lives and can focus on improving their skills and competencies related to behaviors that impact their health. It recognizes that problems such as obesity are influenced by social and cultural contexts and that focusing counseling on questions to elicit how patients perceive and interpret their life experiences can open the door to revising their life stories, changing their behaviors, and perhaps shaping new identities related to health. In this study, narrative counseling em- ployed with weight management strategies, in comparison to traditional weight management alone, resulted in improvements in body mass index, adiposity, and lab values associated with cardiovascular risk.

The second article reports the findings of a qualitative study that examined perceptions about Health at Every Size (HAES) concepts among young Black women; presenting a holistic framework for health and body size in relation to culture.3 As noted by Adams and colleagues, “the HAES perspective does not imply that individuals are optimally healthy at every body size, but rather that individuals of any size can engage in health-promoting behaviors.” 4 The study investigated young Black women’s perceptions of health and how and whether participants’ descriptions reflected the bedrock principles of HAES: weight inclusivity, health enhancement, eating for wellbeing, life-enhancing movement, and respectful care.4 Each of these principles relates to individuals’ life experiences and behaviors and includes the “person” in efforts to attain better health.

Among the findings were participants’ thoughts regarding the complexity of health; that health is not only a medical construct but also has aspects that are spiritual and emotional in nature. Participants noted that health is more than body size and that social, historical, and environmental constructs influence the ability to learn about, access, and engage in healthy behaviors.

Both studies focused on health and behavior change that have bio-logical bases; however, both also included the “person.” In each case, participants’ narratives, experiences, and perspectives were critical to ef- forts to develop strategies aimed at helping individuals achieve better health. I’d argue that separating biology from individual stories and experiences could separate out what makes the person.. . the “person.”

In the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, we often include the perspective of the person in our studies; to consider the role that culture and experience play in influencing behavior and to tailor our nutrition education and behavior change efforts to be responsive to peoples’ lives, experiences, and goals. Personalized nutrition may be most powerful if it combines state-of-the-art genetics with people’s stories and culture, thereby resulting in personal health through empowerment.

Susan L. Johnson, PhD Senior Associate Editor, Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Advancing Research, Practice & Policy


  1. The National Human Genome Research Institute. Personalized Medicine. ics-glossary/Personalized-Medicine. Accessed August 23, 2022.
  2. Ajami M, et Narrative-focused group counseling improves interven- tion outcomes in women with obesity. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2022;54:894–901.
  3. Adams V, Gladden A, Craddock J. Per- ceptions of health among black women in emerging adulthood: alignment with a Health at Every Size perspective. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2022;54:916–924.
  4. Association for Size Diversity and Health. About Health at Every Size (HAES). ASDAH. health-at-every-size-haes-approach/. Accessed August 23, 2022.