The Next 50 Years: Your Perfect Meal and Exercise Plan

February 14, 2020 • by Marc Airhart

Have you ever wondered why some people seem to be able to follow a specific diet or exercise plan and others fail? The answer might have to do with factors unique to each person, like their microbiomes and genetics.

A line indicating a heartbeat moves through a field of floating fruits

Geneticist Molly Bray is working toward a future where each person gets a diet and exercise plan optimized just for them. She shares her vision for how this would work in this latest episode of our miniseries, The Next 50 Years.

Show Notes

Learn about the ongoing TIGER Study, which explores how genes may alter a person's response to exercise and diet interventions.

Read about a 2015 summary report on the genetics of weight loss by some of the leading experts in this field, including Molly Bray.

Music for today's show was produced by:

Podington Bear -

Chuzausen -

Have you heard our other news? Now you can listen to Point of Discovery on Spotify:


Marc Airhart: This is Point of Discovery. Today, we continue our series about life in The Next 50 Years. Here's a question for the future: If no two people are exactly alike – if each one of us has a unique mix of genetics and environment and life experiences providing a dizzying variety across the spectrum of humanity – why does modern medicine still treat everyone as pretty much the same?

Molly Bray: I'm a geneticist. So I'm always looking at the ends of the distribution. Almost all of the traditional statistics just look at what does the average person do or how do they respond to anything, you know?

MA: That's Molly Bray, a professor in the University of Texas at Austin. She and others are working toward a future where each person gets a diet and exercise plan optimized just for them.

MB: If you could optimize health and end or prevent chronic diseases that are plaguing us right now, like obesity, and diabetes and metabolic syndrome and even cancer, if you can prevent those diseases before they occur, that's a huge savings.

MA: Preventing disease could lower healthcare costs and allow people to live healthier, more productive lives. It could help doctors by taking out some of the guesswork.

MB: Docs are mostly like, let's try this. Oh, that didn't work. Let's try this. And even that is costly. So, you know, I think that there's all kinds of benefits to society by figuring out how to use all these resources to better inform our decisions about care.

MA: So how would it work? Bray envisions a three-step process: First, you would have your genome sequenced.

MB: A sequencer that could give you that kind of information is about as big as a flash drive. It requires a drop of blood. And you can do it in the field and you can get the data immediately from the sequencer.

MA: Second, you would start collecting real-time data on yourself.

MB: I think the future is wearable devices and small devices that can collect this big data. It could be dietary intake, it could be physical activity, it could be behaviors and attitudes and biological metabolites. And you can collect it really amazingly simply.

MA: Third, a doctor would feed all that data, plus your gene sequence, into a computer that would use artificial intelligence trained on other people's experiences to develop a diet and exercise plan optimized just for you.

MB: And then when I give you your dietary recommendations, they really have a high probability that you'll respond.

MA: So I asked Bray why it's come to this, why we need artificial intelligence and genetics and wearable devices. I mean, humans have been eating for, well as long as we've been human. Why haven't we figured this stuff out already through trial and error?

MB: We know there's a jillion different diets …

[SFX: montage of different voices from news pieces: "Keto, Mediterranean, vegan, Mayo Clinic, DASH …"]

MB: People are variable. For some people, all of those diets are going to work. For some people, some are going to work better than others. They all work at some level. And the key thing is, is we can't figure out how to get people to stick to them.

MA: One person might be able to handle going vegan, while someone else — me, for example — can't even imagine what life would be like without warm, melty cheese. Again, no two people are the same. That's always been true.

MB: And so part of that optimization of a plan for you, for example, is not only say that [it's] going to make you feel great or it's going to address disease states that you might be dealing with, but also it's going to be a diet that may optimize your ability to stick with it.

MA: Plans are great, but only if you actually follow them. In one of her current research projects, Bray is identifying genes that influence how much exercise a person can tolerate and whether they're likely to persist with an exercise plan.

MB: And the interesting thing about the genes that are the top on our gene list right now, they're all neural, and they're all in your brain, and they're in pleasure reward systems. And it just is so intuitive, the interpretation, because it says, If you like to exercise, if you're stimulating those parts of your brain that make you feel good, then you're going to persist in that behavior.

MA: She hopes a better understanding of how genetics influences adherence will lead to new ways to modify behavior.

MB: But we also think it's really important to predict who's going to respond and who isn't. If we know a priori who's more likely to drop out, we can put more resources towards those people versus generically putting all the same resources in people in a very equivalent way.

MA: Next time on Point of Discovery, we'll talk more about the future of artificial intelligence. It isn't just Bray who believes AI is going to become more and more a part of our everyday lives and in novel ways. But will an AI-infused future be one that we actually want to live in?

PS: The bottom line is that like any technology, most AI technologies could be used for a spectrum of good to evil purposes.

MA: Peter Stone has been studying the future of artificial intelligence for years, and he co-leads a university initiative called Good Systems that's working to make sure our AI future is a bright one. Check out our next episode to hear all about it.

MA: Point of Discovery is a production of the University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences. Music for today's show is by Chuzausen and by Podington Bear. To read a transcript of this show, visit us on our website at If you like what you heard, be sure and tell your friends. We're available wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify. Our senior producer is Christine Sinatra. I'm your host and producer Marc Airhart. Thanks for listening.