I hate needles. Which is why I look away while a lab technician inserts one into my arm and draws four vials of blood. I’m not sick or injured. I’m not getting pricked on doctor’s orders. I’m taking an $800 elective blood test that will determine whether I have food allergies that could be compromising my physical fitness and overall good health.
The antigen leukocyte cellular antibody test, or Alcat, purportedly determines which foods provoke your body’s immune system so that you can make dietary changes to avoid them, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Spring 2014 issue. In all, my blood samples will be exposed to 320 of the most common antigens, including many foods, food additives and molds.
The test will reveal how my white blood cells mobilize in response to each antigen; the faster the cells gather, the greater my sensitivity. Ultimately, the results will rank everything from apples to zucchini along a spectrum of intolerance: severe, moderate and mild. (The symptoms of food intolerance can include gastrointestinal discomfort, fatigue, fluctuating weight and other ailments.)
Modifying my diet based on these findings could potentially boost my energy, help me lose weight, shorten my recovery time after exercise, improve my sleep and produce many other benefits besides.
Although it’s reasonable to be skeptical -- when it comes to performance enhancement, “this test is of unproven diagnostic efficacy,” cautions Phil Lieberman, an immunologist at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine -- dozens of professional athletes swear by such food-sensitivity tests.
Last season, David Ortiz, the Boston Red Sox’s designated hitter, revealed he’d dropped 20 pounds in two months based on an Alcat-dictated diet, which forbade chicken, grouper and shrimp. Likewise, Colorado Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau lost 14 pounds in a month last year after cutting out dairy, gluten and sugars.
Most famously, National Basketball Association all-star Steve Nash first adopted his so-called secret diet around 2009 in response to his Alcat results, which identified an intolerance to dairy, gluten, onions, tomatoes and wheat.
“I can take someone who feels at the top of his game, eliminate his food intolerances and take him to that next level,” says Suneil Jain, a doctor of naturopathic medicine who administered Nash’s Alcat.
Jain’s client roster -- which includes Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer -- extends beyond athletes.
“We see a lot of CEOs and weekend warriors: people who want to look their best, feel their best and perform their best,” Jain says.
“Some of my best success stories are with professional men,” says health coach Linda Partida, who ordered my Alcat and runs her Linda Living practice out of Windsor, California. “It’s important for them to be on point. Whether they’re in meetings or giving presentations, they need energy and focus. They’re business athletes.”
“Your physician will only look to see if you are sick; we are looking to see if you’re optimizing to prevent or delay an event in the future,” says Gil Blander, co-founder of InsideTracker, a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based startup with a blood test and Web-based analysis tool developed by researchers from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University.
Unlike a basic metabolic panel -- a routine blood test administered by physicians -- InsideTracker’s tests go beyond familiar stats such as cholesterol. The company measures up to 30 biomarkers, including cortisol, ferritin and creatine kinase, which, respectively, reveal a person’s levels of stress and iron and whether he or she is overtraining.
After factoring in a person’s age, ethnicity, gender and level of physical activity, InsideTracker -- which has been used by major league pitchers, pro marathoners and Olympic cyclists - - provides each customer with personalized dietary recommendations. Follow-up testing tracks whether those changes are working.
“I look at it as the balance sheet for my own body,” says Panos Panay, a 41-year-old entrepreneur whose InsideTracker results suggested he was overexercising, consuming too much caffeine and not eating enough nuts and seeds. “If I make more investments over here, what happens?”
After he implemented a few dietary and lifestyle changes, his second test showed his numbers had improved.
“I’m not a bodybuilder,” says Panay, whose band-booking website, Sonicbids Corp., was acquired for an estimated $15 million in 2013. “A lot of my motivation was, how can I perform better at work?”
The week after my Alcat blood draw, Partida e-mails me a five-page PDF with my results.
“It could be a whole lot worse,” she tells me when we consult via phone.
Turns out I have a severe intolerance to green peas, lima beans, rooibos tea and pumpkin, none of which is disheartening - - particularly the pumpkin, as I’ve been politely tolerating my wife’s pumpkin pie for years. The bad news is, I have a moderate intolerance to gluten, which is in beer and just about all of my favorite foods, including pizza.
Partida suggests forgoing everything with gluten for three to four months before reintroducing them, one at a time. The idea is to “eat clean” and monitor my response as each food is factored back in. As she starts spelling out how to handle the 26 (!) foods on my mild-intolerance list, I’m not ashamed to say, I begin to waffle.
“You may not follow the recommendations to the letter,” Partida allows. “How you use the information depends on what you want to get out of it. If you’re trying to shave five minutes off your marathon time, it could make all the difference.”
No one is paying me to perform like Steve Nash. Then again, I wouldn’t mind sleeping better or dropping a few pounds. If making changes here and there might help, why not?
At the very least, I can kiss that pumpkin pie goodbye.
Six outfits that offer elective blood tests that they say can help boost health and performance.
Exos Phoenix, Arizona teamexos.com
Inside Tracker Cambridge, Massachusetts insidetracker.com
Linda Living Windsor, California lindaliving.com
Rejuv Medical Sartell, Minnesota rejuvmedical.com
Rejuvena Health & Aesthetics Scottsdale, Arizona werejuvenate.com
Spectra Cell Laboratories Houston spectracell.com
(Steven Leckart is a contributing writer to Bloomberg Pursuits. Opinions expressed are his own.)