A one-size-fits-all approach to diet isn't likely to work since we all have our individual quirks, both biological and behavioral, that make us thrive on one eating pattern rather than another. Dwight Freeney, a defensive end for the Indianapolis Colts, is an extreme example of the quest to pinpoint the exact formula for his body. (His team will face the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl on Sunday.) As described by Sports Illustrated this week, his diet for the days prior to the playoff game against the New York Jets consisted of nothing besides beef and pinto beans.
How did he come up with such a bizarre-seeming plan? Through a protocol created by a licensed nutrition counselor, Sari Mellman, and implemented with the help of her son, Leon, a chiropractor who acts as Freeney's "food coach." Through the protocol, called Sari Mellman's Dietary Progression, Freeney's blood is regularly analyzed to see "what foods create an organ and tissue inflammation response," and the diet is tweaked accordingly, says Leon. There's more to it than just blood analysis—clients, who pay up to the $5,995 the website quotes for the most complete version of the program, get a binder full of educational and customized information—but if the details sound vague, that's because for nonclients, they are. The protocol is proprietary.
I asked Leon Mellman how this system is any better than the typical advice about a healthful diet: Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and focus on whole grains, legumes, lean sources of protein, and "good" fats like olive oil. (And keep calories in balance—i.e., don't eat too much.) He said, quoting his mother, that the conventional rules of nutrition don't always apply. "When you eat broccoli and I eat broccoli, it affects our system differently."
That's probably true, thanks to those aforementioned quirks. Our genes, physiology, and even gut bacteria differ. And of course, it's clear that some people tolerate certain foods less well than others—hence lactose intolerance, celiac disease, and food allergies. And we are equipped, for the most part, to pinpoint those problems. With food allergies, for example, the important guide is a history of a reaction, usually immediate or within an hour of ingestion, to a certain food, says Jeffrey Factor, an allergy and immunology specialist and associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut Medical School. A skin test is the best and fastest way to diagnose a food allergy. Sometimes blood tests are used, but only to detect the presence of an antibody called IgE, says Factor. Other tests, including looking for another antibody called IgG, cytotoxic tests, and hair analysis, are not helpful, he says. The term "food sensitivity" refers not to allergies but to nonallergenic mechanisms that still seem to produce a bad reaction to a certain food (some people get extremely jumpy after one cup of coffee, for example, or get headaches from MSG).
But scientifically predicting the diet that will make you feel or perform better is different. When I wrote last year about diets that claim to make weight loss more likely because they're keyed to a person's individual makeup, scientists told me that while the field of nutritional genomics is promising, there aren't genetic or other tests on the market that can prescribe the best diet with any certainty. (For now, trial and error is still the way to go.) Does the Mellmans' protocol represent an advance in this field? It's impossible to know, since Leon Mellman says neither he nor his mother has published any research into its effectiveness in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Testimonials—and Leon Mellman E-mailed me some glowing ones—are no match for hard data. If Dwight Freeney performs and feels at his best in the Super Bowl, however, that will probably be enough data for him.