A new innovative tool, developed by biostatistician Chris Gennings, PhD, of the Institute for Exposomic Research at Mount Sinai, allows scientists to study how diet can counteract the effects of harmful environmental exposures
Biostatistician Chris Gennings, PhD, has developed a revolutionary new tool to help environmental researchers study how diet can counteract the effects of harmful environmental exposures.
Diet as a Counter Measure
My Nutrition Index assigns a score to a person’s diet by analyzing dozens of variables, including vitamins, minerals, macronutrients and electrolytes, as well as personal data such as sex, age, height, weight, pregnancy status, dietary choices, and medical conditions. The score, a measure of the general nutritional value of a person’s diet, can be added as a variable to environmental health studies to better understand the interplay of diet and environmental toxins.
Gennings’ methodology offers a ray of hope amid growing evidence that the environment exposes humans to countless environmental hazards associated with negative health impact.
“Environmental exposures are so broad and so complex,” says Gennings, Director of the Division of Biostatistics and Research Professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and a member of the Institute for Exposomic Research. “Are we ever going to get rid of these chemicals? If I tell someone that they might not be able to reduce environmental exposure but you can gain resilience from dietary nutrition, to buffer those exposures — that’s a positive health message,” says Gennings.
Prenatal and Early Life Effects
In her own research using My Nutrition Index as a metric of overall nutrition, Gennings has found that children exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in utero scored higher on IQ tests at age 7 as compared with similarly exposed peers, if their mother ate a nutritious diet while pregnant.
Her 2020 study, based on a group of Swedish women, also answered a vexing question for parents and doctors: Should a pregnant woman eat fish? Fish contains healthy fats, vitamins and minerals, yet fish also contain toxins such as PFAS. Gennings found that eating some fish while pregnant was better than not eating fish at all in terms of reducing the impact of PFAS on birth weight.
Gennings is pushing the boundaries of the burgeoning field of biostatistics as applied to exposomics. The concept of analyzing mixtures of nutrients and foods took root in Gennings’ ongoing research as a biostatistician to develop statistical methods designed to study complex mixtures of environmental toxins. Prior research has generally focused on single nutrients and single chemicals. Yet people do not consume single nutrients from foods, but combinations of nutrients, and they are not exposed to single toxins such as lead in isolation, but mixtures of chemicals.
“Researchers need to think about mixtures of chemicals that are jointly acting, otherwise they run the risk of underestimating harmful effects,” says Gennings.
In the clinical setting, Gennings’ research is in the early stages of evaluating whether My Nutrition Index can help doctors use food as medicine by motivating patients to make small changes in dietary habits. My Nutrition Index can assist dieticians to generate personalized diet plans based on what a patient already likes to eat.
In a 2021 pilot study with The Susan and Leonard Feinstein Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Clinical Center at Mount Sinai, Gennings worked with doctors to evaluate My Nutrition Index to help patients with Crohn’s Disease, an incurable, complex disease with symptoms that can change daily. My Nutrition Index adjusts for changing patient symptoms, and the study showed that the Index tracks with the expertise of the clinical dietician and may be useful in providing numeric feedback to patients to make small, customized changes in their diet.
“An IBD patient isn’t going from eating hot dogs to a Mediterranean diet. People aren’t going to do that,” Gennings says. “People may be more likely to reach their goals with incremental changes in their diet.”
Gennings is currently working with researchers to study the microbiome in relation to diet. Preliminary results of the research, which addresses the topic of food insecurity by including subjects who do and do not have trouble accessing food, suggest that My Nutrition Index is tied to changes in the gut microbiome.
“If we can show that My Nutrition Index can be used as a marker for a healthier microbiome,” Gennings says, “that’s exciting.”