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Oklahoma State University professor studies the connection between diet and genetics

OSU Research Matters is a bi-weekly look inside the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.

Did you know that who you are can impact the way your body uses what you eat? Your DNA — which encodes for the genes that make you very uniquely who you are — can also influence how your body responds to your dietary choices.

In this episode, Meghan Robinson speaks with Dr. McKale Montgomery to learn how the research she is conducting might one day be used to allow physicians and dietitians to make individualized dietary prescriptions to protect against disease risk and optimize health outcomes.


MONTGOMERY: When I tell people I do nutrition research, we largely think, it's maybe focused on how what we eat influences our health and wellness and that that's part of it. But my research is unique because I really focus on how the person, as an individual, how that influences the way they respond to what they eat. So, what is it that's unique to a person that makes them respond to a different type of diet than someone else?

ROBINSON: Montgomery is an avid runner and has raced in over 30 marathons. Knowing her diet could affect her performance led her to research in nutrition.

MONTGOMERY: Once I got into school and started really understanding the research process, I realized there's not a single diet that's just the best diet for everyone. And then I started asking, why is that? Well, it's because each person responds differently to different types of dietary interventions. So that's been the focus of my research. What makes someone respond to a certain diet better than someone else?

ROBINSON:When you say respond to it, this is different from people who have celiac disease or dairy allergies.

MONTGOMERY: Right. So if we say response, we could talk about for weight loss -- some people lose weight really well on a ketogenic diet and some don't, and some runners perform well on a high carbohydrate diet and some like to have a lower carbohydrate diet. And so, you know, why is that? Is it preference? Some of it's personal preference, but some of it truly is about the way our genetic makeup influences that.

ROBINSON: Montgomery says at-home genetic testing kits are one way for people to discover how genes impact their diet. However, doctors begin studying the correlation at birth.

MONTGOMERY: When babies are born, one of the first things we do is we prick their heel, and we draw that blood, and we check their genetic makeup and say, do we need to put them on a special diet right away? Because if you don't do that at birth, it can influence their wellbeing for the rest of their lives. So, that's a stark example. That's a stark example, if you have a genetic mutation, and you don't make an intervention at birth, it's gonna have a lifetime impact. But we're learning now, even on a not so dramatic level, that there are little single changes in your DNA that makes the way you metabolize a nutrient different from the way I do. And that's, what's creating this buzzword of precision nutrition, and we're not there yet, but we're going in that direction.

ROBINSON: How do you do this type of research? Is it blood samples?

MONTGOMERY: So, right now we're really focusing on some of those more dramatic DNA mutations, the ones that we choose. I started my career here at OSU, looking at genetic mutations in tumors and how those influence the way that the cells within the tumor metabolize nutrients, and can we exploit that knowledge? And there are certain types of genetic predispositions that increase your likelihood of getting diseases like Alzheimer's, which is another thing we're looking at and how dietary interventions that you could perhaps look into if you have that predisposition. The cost of doing that for the masses is coming down and down to the point where it is becoming more affordable. It's really just taking the time to learn it one at a time when there are 20,000 genes that encode for proteins and 6 billion people on the earth.

ROBINSON: Ultimately, Montgomery would like her research to become so widespread it can study everyone's genetics. The long-term goal is to be able to determine the optimal dietary patterns for individuals and improve their well-being.

Dr. Montgomery will be speaking more in depth on nutrition at 'Research On Tap' — Monday, August 15 at Iron Monk Brewery in Stillwater. The informal discussion is open to the public and starts at 5:30 p.m.

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Meghan Robinson is the host of OSU Research Matters and the Multimedia Reporter/ Producer for Inside OSU, the official streaming platform of Oklahoma State University.
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