Your DNA may be the key to staying healthy

Julianne Ross, CNN Underscored
Updated Fri January 4, 2019

Silicon Valley startup Helix says it can help make 2019 your best year yet. The genetic testing company touts its products as the next generation of at-home DNA testing: Beyond figuring out where you come from, Helix says it will help you actually put what you've learned about yourself to use — whether that means tailoring workouts, customizing your diet or tweaking your caffeine intake based on your genetic profile.

Helix, which boasts that it can unlock 100 times more data than "typical" tests, partners with a marketplace of "DNA-powered products" geared toward things like optimizing your nutrition and exercise routines based on your genetics. Given the perennial New Year's resolution to get healthy, we've taken a look into three of Helix's partner products.

While nothing can replace good old-fashioned diet and exercise, these tests are an entertaining way to become more thoughtful about what you're putting into and expecting from your body. At the very least, they also promise to be more useful than bringing up the fact that you're 2% Neanderthal at your next office party.

Each of the products below can be purchased with or without a Helix DNA Discovery Kit, which includes materials to collect a small saliva sample and a prepaid shipping label to send it back to the lab. You can use your DNA results with as many partner products as you'd like, meaning you only need to pay for the actual sequencing once.

Before you start overhauling your lifestyle, keep in mind that Helix doesn't claim to be diagnostic. Its DNA kits identify genetic markers that have been associated with various sensitivities or issues, but genes are incredibly complex — there's no single cancer or weight loss gene, any more than there's a single reason Ariana Grande has worn a ponytail for the last five years. And while Helix does use a highly sophisticated method of DNA sequencing, DNA can still tell us only so much; indications that you're predisposed to certain diseases are generally more accurate and reliable than indications that you're uniquely susceptible to Oreo-induced weight gain.

Helix emphasizes that these products are meant to "help you narrow in on new exercise plans or diets that you might prefer or find more successful than others, or that give you a better understanding of your existing preferences." In other words, think of Helix as providing general insight into your body, perhaps inspiring you to take better care of yourself in the new year.

1. Azumio Fitness Buddy ($79.99 or $47.99 if already tested; originally $99.99; helix.com)

The Azumio Fitness Buddy app (iOS only) claims to make your workouts work for you by suggesting exercise routines based on your genetic profile. It promises insight into your muscle composition, for instance, which it notes will help determine whether you're better suited to endurance or strength training. It also evaluates your risk for stress fractures, arthritis, or ACL injuries; your tolerance for caffeine; and your ability to process essential omega-3 fats. It makes recommendations accordingly that, at least in theory, will help you get more out of your workouts and diet.

The included fitness tracker and customized workout videos can certainly push you to stay on top of your goals, but there's no magic app to get in shape — meaning your success will very much depend on your willingness to put the information Azumo gives you to good use. Azumo also notes up front that your fitness level is mostly due to factors beyond genetics. That said, fresh workout ideas, combined with the novelty of understanding why certain things seem to work for you, could be good motivating factors for getting off the couch.

2. Mayo Clinic GeneGuide ($159.99; originally $199.99; helix.com)

The Mayo Clinic GeneGuide helps you assess your risk for various health conditions. The test claims to determine whether you're a genetic carrier for certain diseases (meaning they don't affect you but can potentially be passed down to your kids) such as sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis; how your body metabolizes medications such as ibuprofen; and whether you're prone to "health traits" like atopic dermatitis (i.e. red, itchy rashes) or "alcohol flush" (i.e. if you're likely to turn bright red after a little tipple). It also offers genetic counseling support and includes in-depth educational information about all conditions tested.

Knowledge is power, but hypochondriacs may want to consider whether this test will only serve to increase their anxiety; remember that these conditions are, as Mayo Clinic notes, "complex," meaning they're not due solely to genetic factors. And importantly, again, this is not meant to be diagnostic. Instead, the GeneGuide takes a general look at the connection between genetics and your health to encourage users to be more proactive about monitoring and taking care of themselves.

3. LoseIt! +embodyDNA ($59.99 or $46.66 if already tested; originally $89.99; helix.com)

Weight loss is probably the most popular resolution of all, and LoseIt! claims to have helped users lose a collective 70 million pounds by combining genetic data with food tracking software to create custom nutrition guidelines.

Calorie and exercise trackers are nothing new in the app world, and both can be helpful when it comes to simply being more aware of your habits and holding yourself accountable. Where LoseIt! differs is that it tailors diet suggestions based on your DNA. For example, it says it can let you know if you carry genes associated with lactose intolerance or a predisposition to craving sugary treats, as well as how your body metabolizes caffeine along with various vitamins and minerals. It then suggests specific foods with explanations of why they'll be beneficial to you and ways to ease them into your diet. (It also tells you if you have a gluten sensitivity, but the science around gene-based gluten sensitivity is still fuzzy — some scientists say it's not actually possible to definitively determine non-celiac gluten intolerance from DNA alone, so maybe don't cut out the bread just yet.)

Remember that genetic blueprints can only go so far when it comes to weight loss; diet and exercise are still the biggest factors in staying svelte. That said, the LoseIt! app does give you access to a lot of info that may be helpful in developing healthy habits and staying on track toward your nutrition goals.