Science can now tell if you’re sticking to your diet

Have you taken up a new healthy eating regimen or diet during quarantine? Here’s hoping you’re sticking to it because Harvard scientists just developed a new way to determine if someone is following their diet. Well, it’s actually only for the Mediterranean diet, but these findings are still quite significant.

Researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have uncovered a “metabolic signature” capable of measuring a person’s adherence and metabolic response to a Mediterranean diet. Moreover, this metabolic signature can also predict an individual’s future risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD).

This metabolic signature can be obtained via a simple blood drawing and consists of 67 metabolites, or tiny chemicals produced by our metabolisms found throughout the bloodstream. Meanwhile, a typical Mediterranean diet is characterized by lots of fruits, vegetables, unsaturated fats, and olive oil, along with very little dairy or red meat.

To make their discovery, the research team used machine learning to analyze hundreds of metabolites within blood samples taken from 1,859 Spanish volunteers. Those samples were originally taken as part of a large research initiative in Spain focused on the effect of a Mediterranean diet on heart health outcomes.

The machine learning model used by the study’s authors picked out the 67 metabolites that make up the metabolic signature. All of those metabolites, when analyzed together, reveal whether or not someone has been following a Mediterranean diet. They can also indicate how a person’s body is reacting to such a diet. 

A Mediterranean diet is considered quite healthy and has been shown to reduce one’s risk of developing heart problems and even the overall risk of mortality.

So, the higher a person’s metabolic signature, the more closely they were following such a diet, and the less likely they were to develop the cardiac disease in the long-term. Researchers even accounted for other potential factors associated with CVD, but the metabolic signature still proved to be an effective predictor of one’s heart health outcomes over the years.

Following up on those initial results, researchers tested the accuracy of the metabolic signature on 6,868 blood samples collected from Americans. Once again, the 67 metabolites proved to be accurate indicators of both Mediterranean diet habits and long-term heart health developments. This is especially noteworthy considering the vastly different diets and lifestyles among Spaniards and Americans.

“This study is the first to develop a metabolic signature for the Mediterranean diet based on comprehensive metabolomic profiles. It demonstrates that the level of dietary adherence and individual’s response to diet can be objectively measured,” says co-senior study author Liming Liang, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Harvard Chan School, in a university release. “The reproducibility of the findings in the U.S. and Spanish populations indicate the robustness of the approach.”

Up until now, research projects tracking the influence of the Mediterranean diet have had to rely on participants self-reporting their eating habits. This discovery opens the door for much more accurate and conclusive research projects in the future.

“From a public health perspective, our findings underscored the beneficial effects of the Mediterranean diet for the prevention of cardiovascular disease at a molecular level,” notes study co-author Miguel A. Martinez-Gonzalez, Professor at the University of Navarra (Spain).

Judging from the results of this study, adopting a Mediterranean diet is a good idea for pretty much everyone. Just don’t lie if you stray from your meal plan. Science will know you’re being dishonest.

The full study can be found here, published in the European Heart Journal.

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.