The Future Of Dieting Is Here—And It Has Nothing To Do With Calorie Counting

In the loftlike Manhattan waiting room of nutritionist Dana James, all is light and serene. Mounds of crystals gleam alongside books such as The Float Tank Cure; the faint scent of a tourmaline smudge spray permeates the air. I have already plowed through 300-plus prompts on James’s Magna Carta–length questionnaire (Do you have a tendency to cry easily? Do you have cracked heels? How often do you eat salmon?), but my nutritional spelunking is only just beginning. After I endure two weeks of a no-grain, no-sugar, no-dairy Paleo diet to “clean out my system,” the next step is a round of lab tests to evaluate my neurotransmitter and mitochondrial function, among other things, in order to assess my body’s metabolic processes.

Triple-certified in nutrition, cogitative behavioral therapy, and functional medicine—the buzzy field that examines the interaction between a person’s genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors—James is part of a new wave of experts subjecting clients to a battery of blood, saliva, gut, and urine tests that take personalized nutrition to the nth degree. Practitioners measure things like telomeres—the protective caps on chromosomes that supposedly reveal one’s biological age—to locate the source of an ailment or those last stubborn pounds. For me, it all comes back to a protracted case of shingles and frequent carb binges, which I tell James as she grills me on the exact times of day I eat and sleep. Calorie counting this is not.

“If you’re not testing, you’re guessing,” says Katie Mark, R.D., M.P.H., a Miami-based sports dietitian for all levels of athletes, including pro cyclists and NFL players, who rejects the analog mentality of simply eating well and exercising. “When I incorporate specialty functional testing, I’m able to help keep a happy gut, increase immunity, decrease inflammation, and improve symptoms related to food sensitivities, from migraines to digestive issues,” agrees Los Angeles sports dietitian Meg Mangano, R.D.N., C.S.S.D., whose elite roster has included the LA Clippers and the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team. “It’s the future of nutrition,” she says.

This kind of attention does not come cheap. Consultations, which can start in the hundreds of dollars and climb upwards, are usually not covered by insurance, nor are many of the corresponding labs. At my initial visit with James (a mere $525), assistants’ phones buzz with texts from clients, many of whom are not sick but stressed, fatigued, and unable to focus—the vague ailments of modern life often referred to in these circles as “F.L.C.,” or “feel like crap,” syndrome.

James prods my abdomen, still puffy despite my Paleo- induced five-pound weight drop. “If it’s bothering you,” she says, “we’ll run a gut-microbiome test.” This will detect the amount of good bacteria in my system, which can then be bolstered by certain foods, she explains. Columbia University–trained, blonde, and bicoastal, the Aussie sees a gaggle of Victoria’s Secret models, as well as actresses such as Margot Robbie. She scans my urine and saliva results. My mood- and digestion-regulating serotonin levels are high, but motivation-related dopamine is “suboptimal,”which can result in fatigue. Also: Patient exhibits cortisol spikes throughout the day. (Constant deadlines and travel, a young child, and city life come to mind.) Twenty four hours later, a lengthy menu arrives via email, full of cortisol-calming ingredients: bitter greens for vitamin C, magnesium-rich nuts and seeds for “emotional regulation,” oily fish for omega-3s. Just reading through the plan is exhausting. But what if it works?

I’m not alone in my intrigue. The popularity of functional medicine and a trifecta of lifestyle trends (interest in genetic tests; a surge in food allergies, whether real or imagined; and millennials’ preference for personalization) have converged to make an appointment with someone like James hard to come by. There’s also an increased faith in the power of food as health remedy; consumption of once-fringe comestibles, such as medicinal mushrooms that can reportedly lower cholesterol and boost immune response, has more than doubled since last year. If you haven’t heard of reishi and chaga yet, you will.

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