Better Dieting Through Chemistry

Arianne Cohen wrote . . . . . .

First, the shake: At 950 calories, 61 grams of fat, 20g of protein, and 75g of sugars in just 14 ounces of fluid, it’s the centerpiece of the starter kit for Habit LLC, a new individualized nutrition company. It’s also a beast. Even tackling it after a 10-hour fast, as instructed, I have a hard time getting it all down.

Joshua Anthony, founding chief science officer at Habit and one of the shake’s architects, urges me to persevere. “It’s a lot of shake, because it’s designed to be a food challenge,” he says. “Your body has to respond to the overload—the whole process of digestion, absorption, and distribution of those nutrients. How your body manages that gives us important insights about how your body is functioning today.”

Habit aims to be the 23andMe of your metabolism. After I finish the shake, I take samples of my blood periodically over the next two hours and send them back to Habit’s lab in Nashville, along with three swabs of DNA from the inside of my cheek. Within four weeks, I’ll receive a personalized nutrition plan based on my body chemistry and have a coaching session by phone with a dietitian, all for $299. Three additional coaching sessions can be had for $150.

The company was started by Neil Grimmer, co-founder and chairman of Plum Organics, which makes those now ubiquitous baby food pouches. A former triathlete, he developed “CEO disease” during his eight years at the helm of Plum, he says, gaining 50 pounds from “too much coffee and not enough healthy food.” In 2013, shortly after Campbell Soup Co. acquired Plum, he shed the weight with the help of individualized attention from scientists and doctors he’d worked with at the company. This, it occurred to him, might be something others would be interested in.

“When you create a highly personalized business model,” he says, “you can start to wrap additional products and services around it catering to the individual”—say, a meal delivery service, which Habit operates in the Bay Area; a nationwide rollout to major metropolitan areas is planned for the next few months. (The company is currently limiting the shipping of its test kits to the Bay Area; sign up at Habit’s website to be notified when it starts shipping to your city.)

The personalized nutrition market is particularly ripe right now, says Marion Nestle, a molecular biologist and professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University—although most academics are dubious. “All these venture capital companies are just dying to get involved in some sort of food enterprise, because diet is hard for people, and there are people who will love this,” she says. Campbell’s certainly thinks so: It’s backing Habit to the tune of $32 million.

When my results arrive, I find that Habit has deemed me a “protein seeker,” in need of a 35 percent protein diet. I share this with Nestle, who expresses some skepticism. Average protein intake, she says, is about 15 percent, and it’s hard to get higher than that without supplements. Habit doesn’t disclose the algorithm it uses to make its analyses, nor has it published any peer-reviewed research on the efficacy of its dietary prescriptions, so it’s not clear which of the 60 biometric markers the company tests for triggered the advice. I ask Nestle if Habit’s diet recommendations are trustworthy. “They might be, but how would you know?” she says with a sigh. “I’m sure it’s based on something.”

Anthony says that as the size of Habit’s data sets increases, the company will begin to publish research, beginning with a paper he’s planning to present at the Experimental Biology conference in April about nutritional shake composition. (I could provide some customer input.) Transparency, he says, is “super important to us.” Perhaps the current lack thereof is just a little growing pain.

Source: Bloomberg