Written by David Silverberg 

Ohood Alharbi has a lofty goal, which the dietician shares with many in her industry: “I want people to eat healthier than they are already.”

Her company Personalize My Diet, which launched in 2017, aims to boost healthy eating with a twist: her services include making diet recommendations based on someone’s genetic profile.

After a client takes a saliva test, Alharbi combs through the genetic results delivered by a third-party specializing in genetic testing. She then meets with the clients to explain the test results and how eating habits should shift. For example, a genetic test may reveal that you don’t absorb vitamin D well, or your sensitivity to salt.

Sharing another example, Alharbi notes, “I can find out if caffeine, taken before a workout, can enhance someone’s workout session or if it doesn’t.”

She adds, “Another gene variance can look at energy and metabolism and can determine if you metabolize quickly or slowly.”

Applying the field of nutrigenomics to her business, Alharbi can then tailor a diet and exercise plan with clients based on their genetic profile. “Genetics is one component, and I also advise people on fitness routine and determine if they are actually wanting this change in lifestyle,” she says.

She’ll help clients with meal plans, so if someone needs to wean off sugar, to choose one genetic profile, she might suggest replacing white pancakes and maple syrup with buckwheat pancakes with honey. “Sugar is a big problem for many people,” she remarks. “But honey isn’t as bad as sugar and is high in anti-oxidants.”

What sets Alharbi apart from the many dieticians and nutritionists in Toronto is her background. She studied microbiology, molecular biology and medical technology at King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia. She completed a Master’s at Western University in London in Food, Nutrition and Wellness Studies.

As a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto department of nutritional science, she co-authored a study showing that people genetically intolerant to lactose have lower blood levels of vitamin D than the general population. 

She is also a peer reviewer for scientific journals such as the Journal of Current Development in Nutrition, as well as, for The Global Resource for Nutrition Practice (PEN).

Also, as a newcomer to Canada in 2008, she quickly realized how cultural differences can be a major barrier for immigrants, which she stresses with clients not born in Canada. “It can be hard to find certain things you are used to from your home country, like spices,” Alharbi recalls. “I couldn’t find the right kind of cumin in Toronto that I was used to in Saudi Arabia.”

Her knowledge of Arabic food gives her an upper-hand in working with foodies who want to upend their bad eating practices but still find the cultural food that resonates with them, she adds.

Alharbi plans to add several features to Personalize My Diet, from translating the site to Arabic to promoting content more frequently on Instagram.

“When you look at social media, so many people discuss this or that diet helped them but a diet isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” she stresses. “If people realize their bodies are different from each other, right down to their DNA, that can take the pressure – and weight – of them to look a certain way they’re seeing on social media photos.”

Photo credit Zlatko Cetinic, Images Made Real