August 17, 2022

We tried InsideTracker: The ‘ultra-personalized nutrition system’

Today, getting serious about your nutrition means more than tracking your macros, testing for sensitivities, and hiring a dietician. There’s now a whole industry devoted to personalized nutrition, which uses individual characteristics — typically saliva, blood, or stool samples as well as lifestyle habits — to design custom diets and offer targeted advice that theoretically leads to longer, healthier, and fuller lives.

InsideTracker is one such company that’s been on my radar in recent years, having exploded in popularity in the competitive endurance world that I inhabit. (I specialize in the half and full marathon and am currently working my way back to peak fitness after having a baby in December.) 

Eager to see what the hype was about, I jumped at the opportunity to get the full InsideTracker experience. Here’s how it works, what the process is like, and who I think is best served by this buzzy personalized nutrition system.

What is InsideTracker?

InsideTracker, “the ultra-personalized nutrition system,” compiles data from DNA tests, blood samples, and reported lifestyle and nutrition habits, and from that creates custom science-backed action plans. The goal is to optimize your body so you can live longer, feel better, and perform to your potential.

InsideTracker doesn’t market itself as a company just for elite athletes, but rather for anyone who wants to optimize their wellness and fitness in any way. However, there’s a clear performance element baked into the company that’s especially appealing to those of us trying to reach the pinnacle of our sports.

How it works

To get started with InsideTracker, the first step is to pick your plan. (See next section for options.)

Then, you get your blood drawn in a lab or using an at-home test. (All but three of the plans — DNA kit, blood results upload, and DNA results upload — include a blood test.) If you’ve taken a DNA test before, you can submit those results to InsideTracker. Otherwise, you can purchase a DNA kit directly from InsideTracker.

Next, you answer a battery of questions about sleep, exercise, nutrition, and other lifestyle habits.

Once InsideTracker has received and analyzed all of your data, a process that typically takes a few weeks, your internal deep dive can begin. Using either a web browser or the mobile app, you click on “bloodwork” (browser) or “my results” (app) to see your comprehensive biomarker report. Each one is color-coded (red = at risk, yellow = needs work, green = good) and accompanied by a description of that biomarker, a lineup of foods that impact it, and a list of recommendations for improving your number if it’s suboptimal. For individuals who want to go even deeper, many of the biomarkers feature science tabs, links to sources and relevant blog posts, and short explanatory videos. You can also view (and print) your biomarkers in a table format that shows the results next to lab reference ranges, so you can see where you are relative to where you should be, and forward your results to a healthcare provider. 

“Unlike traditional lab tests that just spit out numbers and flag outliers, InsideTracker adds context and meaning to my data.”

Moving onto the nutrition tab in your web browser, for each biomarker that was tested, you’ll find a list of food recommendations that are tailored to your unique needs (according to your report) and preferences (pulled from your questionnaire). Each food comes with an appropriate serving size and an ideal frequency of consumption, recipes that call for that ingredient, and a description of what the food offers nutritionally.

When you’ve spent some time processing your results and recommendations, it’s time to put it all into action. You can use the InsideTracker app to track your progress, review your data, and access articles and podcasts about all things health, wellness, and fitness.

In an ideal world, InsideTracker suggests retesting every few months so you can see how your nutritional and lifestyle changes have impacted your biomarkers, and recalibrate accordingly. 

The plans

InsideTracker offers several plans that vary in scope and price. Most of them are available at discounted rates if you purchase multiple tests at once (a baseline plus follow-ups). From most to least comprehensive, your options are:

  • Ultimate ($589): 43 biomarkers, blood test included

  • Shalane Flanagan Panel ($399): 20+ biomarkers, blood test included

  • Home Kit ($299): seven biomarkers, blood test included

  • Immunity ($269): 25 biomarkers, blood test included

  • InnerAge 2.0 ($249): up to 17 biomarkers, blood test included

  • DNA Kit ($249): DNA test included

  • Essentials ($189): 13 biomarkers, blood test included

  • Blood Results Upload ($119): 43 biomarkers, blood test NOT included

  • DNA Results Upload ($29): DNA test NOT included

This plan comparison chart shows what each test does and does not include. This FAQ answer can help guide you towards a plan that makes the most sense for your situation.

My experience

Having gotten bloodwork done roughly twice a year for the last 15 years — mostly to make sure nothing’s out of whack at the start of a season or marathon build-up — I was curious how my InsiderTracker experience would compare, and what it would unearth. The company hooked me up with the Ultimate, DNA kit, and InnerAge 2.0, and then it was off to the races.

Since I’d never taken a DNA test before, I first took the at-home DNA test. That part couldn’t have been simpler: When my kit arrived, I registered it, swabbed my cheek as per the instructions, sealed and bagged up my sample, mailed it back in the prepaid envelope, and sat back for the four- to six-week processing period.

Meanwhile, I made an appointment to get my blood drawn at a nearby lab. (For $99, you can upgrade to the mobile blood option, in which a licensed mobile phlebotomist comes to you to draw your blood and then delivers your sample to a specified lab.) About 15 minutes and a few vials of blood later, the set-up part of the process was almost complete. All that remained was the questionnaire about my physical stats, dietary habits and preferences, exercise regimen, and other lifestyle factors, which took just a few minutes to complete.

Once I received the email letting me know that my DNA and blood analysis was ready, I downloaded the 47-page(!) report, pulled up my results in the app, and simultaneously dove into both. Admittedly, the sheer amount of information to process was overwhelming at first. But as I took my time wading through it, I saw how clearly (and colorfully) the key takeaways are presented. Every biomarker is well explained before I’m shown what my genetic risk analysis is, what my actual blood analysis revealed, and how those results connect. The app is also loaded with specific recommendations for improving my biomarkers that need work, ranging from “choose fresh over processed meats” for Vitamin B12 to “try a mocktail for your nightcap” for cortisol.

The app shows your biomarkers and what you can do to improve them.

screengrab from InsideTracker app showing checklist

Credit: Screenshot: InsideTracker

screengrab from InsideTracker app showing biomarkers

Credit: Screenshot: InsideTracker

What’s cool about InsideTracker is that, unlike traditional lab tests that just spit out numbers and flag outliers, InsideTracker adds context and meaning to my data. As one example, I don’t just see that my total cholesterol, LDL, and creatine kinase are suboptimal, and then cross my fingers that they improve the next time I test. From my report, I know why each of those biomarkers matter, and I learn that upping my protein with a whey or soy supplement seven days a week will positively impact all three of them. I also know from this experience to take some specific biomarkers (such as lipid levels, calcium, and vitamin D) with a grain of salt while I’m still breastfeeding. As a result, I’ve already made a note in my calendar to try to retest two to three months after I stop, at which point most of them should have returned to pre-pregnancy levels. 

While I’d like to say that I’m meticulously tracking my progress on every recommendation I received, I am approaching my food choices a little differently now. Since learning that I could use a protein bump, I’ve been adding an extra scoop of whey protein to my morning oatmeal, post-workout smoothie, and nighttime glass of milk. I’m also incorporating different varieties of beans into the rotation, having seen that my at-risk lipid levels will benefit. And whenever I’m organized enough to write out a grocery list or meal plan in advance, I try to include a few of my recommended foods that I may not otherwise seek out. (I made a great bulgur salad last weekend and tossed in as many personal nutritional powerhouses as I could.) Time will tell whether and how these cumulative changes impact my running and overall health.

The app

The InsideTracker app makes it possible to digest and track all the information you receive, and is compatible with Apple, Garmin, and Fitbit wearables for even more personalized insights.

The home page serves as your resource library, with articles and podcasts written by the InsideTracker team, as well as your progress tracker. More diligent users will check in daily, answering five quick questions (for example, “please rate your stress yesterday”) and ticking boxes upon completion of one of the lifestyle recommendations (such as “eat a probiotic food today”). You can also check in retroactively if you forget one day or would rather fill it out a week at a time.

The plan tab is where you’ll find your personalized action plan, broken down into four categories: exercise, nutrition, supplement, and lifestyle. Each recommendation (like “whip up your own meals at least 5 nights per week”) comes with an impact score (10 having the highest impact) and can be expanded to show how it helps your blood, how it helps your body, and how science backs it up. You can also click “tell me more” for more thorough explanations and tips from a dietitian. 

Finally, the my results tab allows you to review your biomarkers on demand. For a simplified snapshot, you can see which of your biomarkers need work and which ones are already optimized. By clicking on an individual biomarker, you can learn what it is and how it works, see your result on a color-coded spectrum, and find ways to improve it. If you purchased the InnerAge test, you’ll also find that in the results section.

The verdict

The way I see it, if routine bloodwork is a standard gym treadmill, InsideTracker is a Woodway — a premium product that costs way more, but offers a notably elevated experience.

It’s hard to imagine a single person who wouldn’t benefit from a one-off InsideTracker test or blood analysis. But there are two groups that I think are especially well-suited for somewhat regular InsideTracker testing: elite athletes who are seeking to fine tune their bodies for optimal health and peak performance and well-off health and fitness enthusiasts who will go to great lengths (and pay big bucks) to realize their physical potential.