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Genetics and Genomics: What’s the difference?

Their meaning and implications for your health may surprise you

Hardly a day seems to go by without some kind of mention of DNA testing, along with the words genetics and genomics. The question then becomes: is there a difference between them, and more importantly from where I sit, what is their relevance to you and your health? Let’s dive in.

I would say that the single largest driver behind the entire genetic-genomic conversation is the Human Genome Project. Completed in 2003 and heralded as one of the most significant accomplishments in human science, it provided the world, for the very first time, with a detailed roadmap of the location and structure of human genes and how they function. In turn, the project has led to the accessibility of at-home genetic testing and other tools that place amazing science and technology at our fingertips.

It’s also placed the words “genetics” and “genomics” into the common vernacular where they’re often used interchangeably – and frequently, erroneously. Genetics and genomics do share common ground in that they both refer to the genetic material you inherited from your parents. But beyond this shared origin, their meaning and implication for your health are significantly different.

The World Health Organization explains that genetics refers to the study of ”specific individual genes.” Geneticists look for changes in the DNA sequence of individual genes that cause mutations. Mutations are passed on each time a cell replicates itself, essentially impacting the entire body. They lead to serious, rare diseases that are usually fatal and cannot be modified by diet or lifestyle. Single gene mutations occur in less than 1 percent of the population. Sickle cell anemia is an example of a genetic mutation leading to a life-threatening outcome.

Unlike the single gene focus of genetics, genomics refers to our entire genetic makeup, also known as our genome. Genomics is the study how multiple genes interact with and respond to the environment we live in as well as to the food we eat and the types of exercise we participate in. While variants in genes called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms, or SNPs (pronounced SNIPs), are responsible for individual traits, such as blue eyes or curly hair, they also explain why some of us may develop diabetes or heart disease while others do not. Unlike single gene mutations which are rare and do not respond to treatment, SNPs occur in more than 99 percent of the population and do respond to treatment. And this is where things get exciting.

Through genomics, we now know how certain foods “converse” with specific genes to help us manage our blood sugar more effectively, for example. We know more about which foods to eat to help our genes rid us of the damaging impact of environmental toxins. In short, genomic information empowers us to steer a better course to our health. Perhaps the most exciting thing of all is that while DNA testing provides us with the clearest insights into ancestry and inherited conditions, we can also harness the power of genomics without a test.

While it is true that personal genomic testing provides the clearest insights into your unique blueprint and how to fine tune our food choices to harmonize with your biochemistry, the basic principles of genomics apply to everyone. In other words, the way food works with genes is essentially the same way for everyone. The difference between us is in how much of a certain nutrient or ingredient you might need versus your sibling or your neighbor.

We’ve entered a new era in food and science, one that has shed new light on which foods to choose and how to prepare them to support your genes’ best behavior. By stepping into this new food information age, you’re taking one huge step forward toward enjoying a long and healthy life. 

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