DNA Data Testing: How Accurate and Useful?

DNA testing kits are an amazing piece of technology. Just imagine, in 2003 the Human Genome Project was completed. It took scientists BILLIONS of dollars and an entire DECADE to complete. Today, you can have important pieces of your DNA tested for less than $100, or get your entire genome sequenced for less than $1000. Not only this, but you can get the results from the comfort of your home, after sending in a simple DNA sample from your cheek cells.

Companies like 23andMe, Ancestry, and Veritas Genetics have sprung up to bring the power of DNA testing to the masses. These companies offer a number of different tests, ranging from what your genetics can tell you about your genealogy to the various disease risks you may carry due to mutations in your genes. These companies typically only publish a test after significant scientific findings have been found, and there is some understanding of the mechanisms behind the gene. However, with the ease with which genetic tests can be conducted, a number of smaller companies are trying to monetize the information within your genes – meet DNA Data-Testing Companies. As rip-off DNA companies are growing in numbers and popularity, prospective customers should be attentive to detail and understand if there is an actual added value.

Raw DNA Data Testing Companies

Many of these companies do not test your genetics themselves. Instead, they allow you to transfer your results from another testing company. With this raw data, they analyze a number of other locations within your genes which have been linked to various conditions. Companies may promise to “optimize your diet” or “advance your fitness”, based purely on the clues found within your genome. 

The major difference between these companies and the industry leaders are the standards they are held to. Many of the companies are startups, trying to make their place in the jungle that is the genetic testing market. But, don’t be fooled.  Part of the reason 23andMe and other industry giants are not reporting those same traits is not that they don’t have access to the information. Rather, they have likely seen the same studies linking certain genes to various conditions, and they decided there was not enough evidence to draw conclusions from any given genetic variants. 

In other words, many raw DNA data testing companies are simply wrapping generic health advice in the guise of genetic testing, and then they say it was “personalized” to your personal genetic profile. 


What Do Raw DNA Data Testing Companies Claim?

Nutritional Claims

One of the broadest claims by these third-party testing companies is that they will be able to analyze your genetics and give you the “perfect meal” for your genotype. Not only will they tell you what foods your body is most able to process, but some companies even offer specific meal planning based on your genetics. For instance, some studies have implicated certain gene variants with different activity levels of various digestive enzymes. Knowing the activity of this enzyme can help them predict which foods you will be able to process better than others. Some reports claim to know your affinity for red wine or other taste preferences based solely on your genetic code.

Fitness Claims

The second most common claim made by raw DNA testing companies is that they can find the “perfect” workout for your body type, to maximize weight loss and help you gain tone and definition in your muscles. The companies analyze genes which are related to creating the proteins within muscles that allow them to shorten and flex. They consider other information, such as any genetic mutations which may affect your blood and oxygenation levels. Together, they try to present a picture that they understand your body at a genetic level and have specific tools to increase your success in sports. 

Neurological Claims

The last and most egregious reports come in the form of determinations about your mental state and abilities based on your genetic profile. Various companies have reports detailing how your genetics may influence mental states like harm avoidance, mathematical ability, and even intelligence in general. Some of these reports are even “backed” by a number of statistically significant studies which show some correlation between certain genetic variants and mental analysis. However, as is the case with all of these categories, the reports not only ignore but blatantly disregard lessons from holistic science. Instead, they present any evidence supporting an idea as fact, as we will see below.


Why Are These Claims Bogus?

Nutrition Background

Nutrition is an enormously complex subject, and the science behind it has been obscured and complicated by industry influences for decades. Consider eggs for example. Eggs have gone back and forth between the healthy column and the unhealthy column for decades, as researchers funded by different sources publish censored versions of their results to not discourage their funding sources from hiring them again. But, consider this:

An egg has 187 milligrams of cholesterol. An entire steak has only 196 milligrams of cholesterol, though a typical steak is 5 times larger than an egg. Per unit of weight, a steak has only 20% of the cholesterol of an egg. Given that the human body can survive with NO ADDITIONAL cholesterol, and the fact that high cholesterol is linked to almost every degenerative disease, eggs are obviously an unnecessary and unhealthy part of a normal diet.

So, why do eggs still appear “as part of a healthy breakfast” in so many commercials, dietary guidelines, and even government-sponsored diet plans? If you are looking for the answer to any complex societal question, the simplest solution is to follow the money. The Agricultural Lobby within U.S. politics is by far the best funded. It has more power than the NRA, the Big Pharma Lobby, or any other group within politics. 

Nutrition and Genetics

Likewise, third-party raw DNA testing companies are looking for the money. Though the genetic associations they find and show may have some merit, a good diet for one person is a good diet for most people. In fact, if you are still interested in a personalized dietary plan, here is some great, standard advice that you are likely to receive:

Eat more fiber in the form of fruits and vegetables. Minimize your intake of animal-based products, which carry the highest loads of fat, salts, oils, and cholesterol. Eat a large variety of fruits and vegetables to ensure you get all the different nutrients and exercise regularly. And that’s it. 

This is essentially the same basic dietary guidelines being presented by the majority of DNA testing companies, because plant-based, whole-food diets have been shown in clinical studies to be the most promising at both increasing weight loss, increasing muscle mass, and improving health in general. 

Yes, you may have a genetic variant that is associated with a decreased ability to process carbohydrates. But that information has almost no influence on what would make a good dietary choice. A varied diet of fruits and vegetables is still the most efficient and healthy way to lose weight or provide your body with optimal nutrition for working out. 

Fitness Background

Like nutrition, the entire science of fitness has been heavily influenced by industry and society at large. In the early 1900s, it was found that different types of runners had largely different muscle types. Sprinters, known for their bursting speed but low endurance, largely had fast-twitch muscle fibers. Marathon runners were largely the opposite, having mostly slow-twitch muscle fibers that provided endurance but not speed. 

As such, trainers begin to measure the types and kinds of muscle fibers within up-and-coming athletes. If a person had more slow-twitch fibers, they were marked as a distance runner. People with fast twitch fibers were pushed into running sprints or becoming running backs for the football team. However, no one investigated the effects of training and exercise on which type of fibers develop within an athlete. Likewise, a person’s ability to use oxygen, their levels of lactic acid production, and other aspects of athleticism were all measured. But, many of these traits were assumed to be static.

That is, most researchers saw these traits as “fixed” within a person. If you have fast-twitch fibers, it was simply assumed that you were born with these fibers. Thus, someone with fast-twitch fibers would never be a good candidate for long-distance running. Some studies even put a racist spin on things, claiming that black people had more fast-twitch fibers while white athletes were better for endurance. As we will see, these claims were largely made-up. 

Fitness and Genetics

Like all traits we have, fitness is at some level determined by genetics. Certain genes absolutely affect various aspects of athleticism. However, many third-party raw DNA data testing companies claim to be able to optimize your workout based on which versions of certain genes you carry. But, one simple story can undermine the entire premise behind these results.

Consider the story of Abebe Bikila, the first Ethiopian-born winner of the Marathon in the Olympic Games. The science of his time was against him. All known reports of black athletes suggested that because of their genetics, they were more likely to be sprinters with fast-twitch muscle fibers. 

But, as a young boy Abebe regularly practiced long-distance running in a common Ethiopian game played on a field over a mile long. This life-long training led Abebe to finish 1st in dozens of marathons around the world, competing with some of the world’s best endurance runners. If Abebe’s story tells us anything, it is that your genetic predispositions can easily be overcome with effort, perseverance, and the right attitude.

In fact, scientists are now publishing articles on the “plasticity” of muscles. Simply put, the type of muscle that forms within your body is the type that you use on a regular basis. They have shown that at a microscopic level, the nerve signals a muscle receives can change the type of muscle that is formed.

Abebe was rarely sprinting. Rather, he spent almost every day running long distances, from the time he was a young boy. Similarly, most athletic traits are determined not by your genetic blueprints, but by which part of those blueprints you actively engage and work. So, before you spend money on a genetic test that will “guess” which type of muscle fiber you have, or what level of oxidation your blood can reach, you would likely do best just by practicing the skills you need for the sport you want to play. 

Neurological Insights

This is likely the most egregious category of reports because the human brain is the most complex organ in the human body. Like nutrition and fitness, we are only beginning to see the whole picture. And, as in the other categories, our initial reductionist scientific findings have been largely overturned by recent studies. 

Many raw DNA data testing companies claim they can estimate your intelligence, mathematical abilities, or other very complex traits based on your genetic code. Simply put, this drastically overestimates the role of a single gene within the complex framework of the human mind. In fact, recent evidence suggests that the brain is among the body’s most trainable and malleable organs, and it will readily reorganize itself based on the tasks we present it with. 

Recent studies have confirmed the dramatic plasticity of the brain. Not only can people accomplish almost any task they put their mind to, but the things we focus on become more ingrained within our minds. As more and more connections are devoted to a specific task, the brain adapts, incorporates more neurons, and provides more processing power to any given activity that we focus on. But, where do genetics come into this picture?

Neurology and Genetics

What large scale genetic tests have shown us is that certain groups of people are better at certain tasks. Take mathematics as an example. For decades, Asian cultures scored highly on standardized mathematics exams while Americans have scored relatively low. DNA analysis would have us believe that this is due to the genes that Asian cultures carry, which are found in less abundance within the melting pot of the United States. But this is a highly reduced conclusion, which is easily explained in other ways.

For example, in Chinese and Japanese culture education is typically viewed as a very high priority. Scoring low on a math test is not only bad but brings dishonor on your entire family. The stakes in American families are often much lower. If you are bad at math, you simply focus on other subjects you like and get ahead in them. 

So, what actually causes differences in math scores? Is it our genetics, or is it simply the culture and environment we were raised in? The answer is certainly not all genetic, as many companies would like you to think. Much like a runner can focus on becoming a sprinter and change the type of muscle present, so too can a person become a mathematician. Even if their genetics say otherwise. 

Will Genetic Testing Get Better?

The answer to this question is most certainly “Yes!”. Right now, we are on the very cusp of understanding when it comes to genetics. As more and more people take genetic tests and add their data to the aggregate pool, researchers will have a much clearer understanding of how genetics affect the body.

Right now, most reports are based on correlation. That is, the presence of a certain gene can be predictive of real-life outcomes and certain traits. The problem is, these studies rarely define and extrapolate on the underlying molecular mechanisms behind the gene. As the science behind genetic reports becomes more robust, we will gain an understanding of why a certain gene affects people the way it does. 

Until that time, most raw DNA data testing companies are “shooting-in-the-dark”, so to speak. While they know there is a correlation, the complexities of causation are still decades from being understood. Users have reported getting different results on the same gene from different companies, or receiving useless generalized information after paying hundreds of dollars. 

So, if you do decide to get one of these tests, treat the results as informative. But know that there is a much larger picture that simple genetic analysis does not yet grasp or understand. 


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4 years ago

[…] the tests they offer which are based only on correlation, not causation (in many cases these are DNA data testing companies who only process external data provided to […]