Can Your DNA Tell You the Healthiest Way to Live Your Life?

A double helix begins to swirl on my screen after I upload the raw data from my 23andMe genetic test to a site called DNA Lifestyle Coach. An ethnically ambiguous illustrated girl greets me, gleefully eating a bowl of vegetables while holding her cell phone. Against a salmon-colored backdrop are the words: “MY DIET COACH,” offering a health plan “tailored” to my genetics.

Here is what the DNA Lifestyle Coach, run by a company called Titanovo, promises: For between $215 and $320, it will send you a saliva kit and analyze your genes to determine how you should best live your life for optimal mental and physical health, as well as optimal dental and skin care. For another $150 it will measure the length of your telomeres (the protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes, which typically shrink as we get older and are being studied to understand aging), to help you assess your longevity. You can also bypass Titanovo’s DNA test and instead merge data you’ve already received from 23andMe (as I did) or another testing company.

DNA Lifestyle Coach is one in a batch of companies that has emerged in recent years, promising to pare down confusing personal DNA data reports, using science, leaving you instead with a simple set of bullet points for how to live healthier, happier, stronger, smarter, longer.

There’s DNAFit. And Kinetic Diagnostics. And even a “genetic superhero test” by Orig3n, which makes DNA-based predictions about your strength, intelligence, and speed. Most of these are aimed at boosting athletic and physical performance and preventing sports-related injuries. But DNA Lifestyle Coach ventures into cosmetic and stress-reduction advice, seeking to answer questions like: What can our genes tell us about how we can sleep better? What secrets does my DNA hold about preventing aging?

As I begin to read my report, DNA Lifestyle Coach informs me: “Your genetics infer that you will struggle to lose weight more than most, so your caloric cut should be strict.” When dieting, it says, I should aim to take in 600 fewer calories a day.

At first glance, this information does not feel more enlightening than any other diet or fitness plan I have ever tried in my life. Plug my weight, height, BMI numbers and heart rate averages into apps like MyFitnessPal or Fitbit and each one will spit out similar estimates. Tell me something I don’t know. Then, it does.

According to my genes, it says up to three cups of coffee per day could be beneficial, but does not give any details as to those benefits. And the psychological effects of caffeine are supposedly less pronounced for me, which means I’m able to sleep after a couple hours even when having coffee at night. It also predicts that I sober up after alcohol quicker than most. Great! More coffee? Less intoxication? All from my genes?

It gets better. Apparently, I have awesome endurance. Like marathon runner-level endurance (if I wanted to be a professional athlete). And my DNA Lifestyle Coach says I push myself in exercise and competition. That is because I don’t have any risk for “over-anxiety,” or other “negative emotions.” I don’t think my husband would agree. But whatever. I am starting to like my genes even more.

Feeling emboldened, I sign up for the company’s telomere test, which requires sending more of my spit away in the mail. It will take several weeks to get the results back, but I have a feeling the test is going to tell me I have robust telomeres too, and that I am going to live a long, long time. It is all beginning to feel a lot like that time I had my palms read on a street corner in the French Quarter in New Orleans.

But those feel-good endorphins that come along with being told you’re superiorcan fade fast, and one need only dig down into the data to figure out that such an inflated sense of personal biology may not be much more than an illusion.

“You have to know, this is like the stuff you see on TV after midnight,” Stuart K. Kim tells me after I share my DNA Lifestyle Coach site password and complete health profile results with him. He’s a professor emeritus in the developmental biology and genetics program at Stanford University. “Weight loss kind of stuff, anti-aging kind of stuff. It’s pretty far out there.”

I stay on the phone with Kim as he and I click on the little information bubbles in my report next to suggestions for carbs, fats, fiber, water intake, vitamins, gluten, and lactose. In each category, the report highlights my genes and SNPs in those gene sequences (single-nucleotide polymorphisms, pronounced “snips,” which are alternative spellings of genes that come down to a one letter difference. That one letter may lead to the gene functioning differently). With each SNP comes a link to an abstract for a published academic paper (most behind a paywall) explaining how it might be associated with health.