About a month ago I was contacted by the folks from InsideTracker to do a run through of their newly unveiled nutrition testing service. The goal of this service was to allow athletes and non-athletes alike the ability to quickly and easily get blood work done around various markers, and then have useful and actionable information given back to them about what their results mean.
Unlike going to a doctors office, everything from a results standpoint would be done online. Your only task would be to go to one of their affiliate labs to get the blood work done, which takes about 2 minutes. After that the results are returned online to you, with suggestions and the ability to discuss with one of their doctors or nutritional experts as well.
The whole concept was somewhat intriguing to me. For the most part, I’d classify myself as someone who does a fair bit of physical activity as part of training (read: something every day), and for the most part I eat fairly healthy. I’m not one to turn away a cheeseburger in the right circumstances, but I’m also not eating fries every week either. I try to simply strike a balance in what I eat. You know, like only one ice cream sundae per night.
So I decided I was game for the test and they gave me a code to go ahead and have a test done like any other normal person. Let’s dig into what they do, and whether or not I found the service useful.
Sign-up and Setting up the appointment:
The first step is to create an account online and select which service you’d like. They offer two levels, which basically bubble down to whether or not you want the Vitamin D testing done. This testing is significantly more expensive, but that’s primarily due to the additional machines required to do that test.
In my case, they opted to include the Vitamin D testing – which would later turn out to perhaps be the most interesting part of the test result I received.
Additionally, if you live in the Boston area, you can also have someone come to your pad for an extra $80. Since I don’t live in the Boston area, this wasn’t really an option.
The next step after creating the initial account is to select a testing center and a timeslot. InsideTracker partners with a company called Labcorp, which in turn has 1,500 lab offices across the country. So it’s sorta like finding the nearest Subway Sandwich shop…pretty easy.
In my case, I was able to find an office all of a mile from my place. It would actually take me longer to drive there than bike or even walk there (due to some railroad tracks in the way of cars). Perfect!
The instructions above then walk you through filling out LabCorp’s steps below. This takes between 8 and 12 seconds…perhaps 15 if you haven’t had caffeine yet.
Once I selected the nearest office and told them why I’m coming, I was able to choose from a scheduled appointment time. Now, as I found out – I actually could have just walked in, but that would have caused more confusion. So this way, it was a bit easier for the office and may. Given the schedule was wide open for the following day and days after that…it was pretty easy.
Finally, after selecting the timeslot, I was good to go.
They’ll e-mail you some instructions which have you in turn print out a lab slip. This lap slip basically tells the lab what tests to do, and how to charge InsideTracker.
Additionally, it’ll tell you to fast for 12 hours beforehand. Which means no eating. Drinking water is OK.
The only other item I completed ahead of time was the form with my individual information, which allows them to ultimately customize the results for me. In many ways, this is the most important part of the service – because they take into account your profile.
So with that complete, onto the test I go!
Because some conference calls ran late, I in turn ran late. Thus I missed my appointment time. But, no worries at all, they fit me in about 10 minutes later. There was some initial confusion on how to locate the test profile in their system – but once they sorted that out without my assistance or interference, we were good to go.
The waiting room was packed. Labcorp does testing of a wide range, from blood samples for services like this, to drug testing. But, since the place was about 1 mile from my house it made it super convenient.
Once they were ready for me the lab worker took me into a small room and then cleaned the area where he’d draw blood, which was a vein on the inside of my arm near my elbow.
Since I had actually had blood drawn just a week prior, I knew that I was pretty good for strong and freely flowing blood. Though, this time…not so much. Last week I had filled about 8-9 vials easily. This time, it took a wee bit more time to get through the three vials needed.
No worries, only one needle need be inserted, and within a few minutes I was all set and headed out the door. He kept my vials of course:
With my part complete, I needed only wait for the results. InsideTracker advertises a 3 business day turnaround.
Once you leave, the vials are centrifuged locally for a couple minutes before being shipped that night to Labcorp’s facility in Raritan, NJ. They units are then processed by machine and the computerized results are sent to Segterra, which is behind InsideTracker. After that, the results magically show up online. They’re looking to see how over the next 6 months they can streamline that process a bit further from the current 3 days, though I’d say it works pretty well today.
They delivered on the three business day turnaround, and by Wednesday morning the results were live. Because my three-days fell over a weekend, it seemed like much longer of course. Once I logged in I found an overall list of all the metrics they took:
Though, once you glanced below that – they list each and every metric as well as recommendations for each one. Here’s the first chunk:
Now, you’ll see a few different colors here on the chart on the left hand side. First up, you’ve got the green section. This is the section that’s customized based on your individual profile – so it accounts for how much you train, your age, etc… This is – as they put it – ‘your optimized zone’. Next we have the light pink section. This is the zone that’s considered ‘normal’. Essentially, if you went to any regular doctor, they would say you were ‘Good to go!’ based on being within that range. Then finally, you have the darker pink ranges, which is considered ‘less than ideal’. In other words, not good.
Taking a look at my Vitamin B12 one, you can see I’m just barely above my optimized zone, but still within the overall general population recommendations.
So how do I fix this? Or what can I do to change things? Well next to each test there are an assortment of food category suggestions. Again looking at the Vitamin B12 one, since I’m high, it recommends I ‘Eat Less’ of a given set of foods, as you can see below.
The problem here is that these foods aren’t terribly useful. I can’t remember the last time I had mackerel, and I don’t even like sardines. I do enjoy my Special-K cereal though. In talking with them about it, this is one area where they’re looking to overhaul the food categories quite a bit to make it more practical and realistic. That should happen pretty shortly here. In fact, since November, I’m already seeing some changes (regrettably, one of them was to remove the ‘Eat More Poptarts’ recommendation).
If you click on ‘View More Vitamin B12 food suggestions”, it takes you to a page with essentially more recommendations:
Like the first page, these aren’t as useful, but they’re also getting changed.
When you choose your test you’re given the choice of whether or not to get a Vitamin D testing or not. In my case, they went ahead and sprung for the extra test. This one costs a fair bit more because it requires a separate machine to process, and they said that its their most expensive test on the panel today. Here’s how my results landed. As you can see, I was just .6 above into the ‘safe’ general zone.
But I’m a bit low on Vitamin D – which, wasn’t actually surprising to them. They found that about 40% of the people in the pilot program were outside of the preferred Vitamin D range – which is inline with many folks in the Northern Hemisphere who don’t spend as much time outdoors since sunshine is really the major driver of Vitamin D, and my outside daylight time is someone low. The fixes for Vitamin D deficiencies (aside from just spending more time outdoors) as per recommendation of the tool, would be to eat more fish and mushrooms. But there’s some issues there. When I talked with them on the phone, they noted that “To fix it with food is tricky, essentially just fish and mushrooms can increase Vitamin D counts – but with the fish, you get the fats. Mushrooms…you have to eat a lot of them!”.
This is really the one area where they would actually recommend a supplement. Their overall goal is to change the way you eat, and not to load you up on supplements. They believe that simple changes in diet can make a big impact. But in the case of Vitamin D, it would take a massive amount of mushrooms to get you anywhere near where you want to be.
Last but not least, they have some menu planning tools. These are aimed at taking in all the recommendations based on your test results, and helping you choose foods across the spectrum of your day in different food groups – aimed and getting you closer to the optimized zone (click to zoom):
While I found the options interesting, it’s a bit hard to try and fit all the recommendations into my day to day life, without unknowingly bonking something else out of alignment. This is an area where they’re going to do some work on as well.
All in all, I think this is a pretty interesting service. For me, I had no idea what my test would look like. I eat relatively healthy, but I’m also not restricting myself to any particular diet. I don’t have cheeseburgers everyday, but I also don’t just eat salads and chicken breasts either. I eat what appeals to me, when it appeals to me.
As you can see, I can make some minor changes – but in general, I’m not doing too badly. Most things are pretty close. I’ve started taking some Vitamin D supplements (just off the shelf stuff), and might give the test another shot again in a few months to see how things shift. They recommend doing the tests a few times a year, though some of the markers will change more rapidly than others.
Perhaps if my tests had come back with me being completely out of alignment, I’d be more able to make significant shifts to try and address issues. But in my case, I’m either just barely above or below the optimized zone, so it’s a fine balance to ensure that changing one aspect of my diet to fix one thing – doesn’t knock something else out of whack. Nonetheless, knowledge is power, so I love to know what’s going on.
As always, if you’ve got any questions – feel free to post them below. Either I can try and answer them, or I’ll get answers from the folks at InsideTracker.
Thanks for reading!
Good morning Ray! Very interesting article to read!
I just want to philosophize about a general issue that isn’t quite optimal in my opinion. I will take your Vitamin D levels as an example for that.
Of course you can take supplements to reach an “optimal” level of Vitamin D. But as the service just adresses nutrition testing, it doesn’t regard several other factors that significantly interfere with the status not only of your vitamins but also most other blood marker that have been tested.
For example, the last step of the synthesis of Vitamin D takes part in your skin! It requires sunlight (ultraviolet radiation to be exact! That’s probably the reason why you were asked if you spend time outdoors in one of the forms to fill in. So as I assume you spend most of the daylight time at work and train later in the day (or according to some of your travel reports at insane times in the morning^^) when sunlight decreases, this might have a much greater impact on your Vitamin D levels than you nutrition. Escpecially as you say to eat quite healthy.
So I would recommend the company to definitely add the “real sunlight” criteria, though it doesn’t fit in “nutrition testing”.
Of course, the service surely isn’t intended to replace a visit at your local doctor, but a guideline to help changing disadvantageous behaviours of eating. And giving kind of a helping hand in improving health by improving nutrition would definitely help most people to improve their health.
It’s just that also healthy people like you (at least from what I can say regarding your blood markers) will tend to change certain things like you taking supplements. Why raise Vitamin D when Calcium obviously is in the normal range?! As Vitamin D is one of the main players in your Calcium metabolism. If you are a healthy person, it is in my opinion just treating numbers on a piece of paper, and not treating your health.
As I’m a medical student at almost the end of my studies, I would be interested to know how the doctors you mentioned are involved in the whole process.
Thanks again for the article and your whole blog overall. It’s always a pleasure to read!
Have a St Nicholas’ Day, Martin
Hi Martin! Kudos to you as a medical student for looking into these alternative tools!
As you say, I agree that giving “a helping hand in improving health by improving nutrition would definitely help most people to improve their health”, and I’m excited about how InsideTracker is helping me!
It looks like their recommendation engine has evolved quite a bit since this article was written. I’m attaching my vitamin D results here so you can see first hand. The recommendations take into account that I’m already taking vitamin D supplements (upon Dr. recommendation) as my vitamin D levels had previously tested very low. I was surprised that they’re *still* low given I’ve already taken some corrective steps. Now I know that the sunlight recommendation is especially important for me, whereas before I assumed (albeit naively) that supplementation alone would be sufficient. Clearly, I still have a lot to learn, so it’s great to have a tool like InsideTracker to help!
I wish, something like this would be offered here in Germany.
Your report was very interesting to read; thank you very much for the detailed description.
As an engineer, I always get into some discussion with my doctor. I look for numbers, correlations and specific recommendations. He talks about the whole picture one has to take into consideration. But his picture often seems to be “blurred”. And if I want to put these results into practice, I often fail since eating is something which happens along a busy workday.
I know, I should/could change my way of life. But I rather would prefer to optimize it. And such a “radar”, like InsideTracker, could be really helpful.
Best regards from Cologne, Martin.
Greetings from Ann Arbor, Michigan. 🙂
If you’re still interested in getting tested in Cologne, I have good news! InsideTracker now offers an international option. You would get your blood tested locally and then enter your results in the system. The international package includes everything in the Ultimate plan, so you’d receive the full range of results/recommendations as anyone ordering the test here in the states.
Mobile version of the site!!! Great!! Much easier to read from my phone!
As a UK based Docor with somewhat of a special interest in Vitamin D metabolism I echo the first comment wholeheartedly.
On the whole I feel services like these are not very useful and I wouldn’t advise anyone use them – the evidence base is sketchy at best e.g. there is still much debate about the normal values of Vitamin D in humans.
This is the next big thing in health and wellbeing. While I applaud people taking a much deeper interest in their body, they must be educated properly what any results may or may not mean.
Pretty interesting product being sold. I think it will find a good market for people wanting to know some bio-markers but don’t want to go to the doctor. I echo what the others said about Vitamin D, the jury is still out about the optimal level and many doctors will treat low-normal values. It’s very trendy right now. Plus it’s probably not great to be taking too much Vit D.
Cholesterol Panel: all people should know their numbers
Hemoglobin: Every athlete wants to know their Hg and HCT
Hemoglobin/ferritin: treating low Hg without a Dr. supervision is dangerous. You NEED to know the cause of the anemia
Vit D: As previously mentioned.
Why would you specifically alter your diet to lower your Vit B12? Makes zero sense clinically.
Vit B and folic acid: unless you are an alcoholic or have an absorption disorder, no one on a western diet will be low in these. If you are, you will know about it before this test
mag: Highly regulated, unless you are acutely ill or on diuretics I would never expect this tests to be off.
Fasting glucose: really not sensitive to insulin resistance or pre-diabetes (what you should be concerned about
CK: non-specific and easily elevated by just about anything. What’s the point of it?
I’m real surprised they did not include thyroid makers (TSH) or a marker of inflammation (hs-CRP). These would be interesting to see but probably pretty expensive tests to run. I’m also interested in how they set their optimal levels and how their doctors are involved.
Interesting service, Ray. I see value for people who do not have health insurance, but in the US *most* group policies cover blood tests as part of an annual physical. In fact, many mid-to-large companies have also begun offering on-site testing as part their wellness offerings. Combine your test with online tools (provided by health insurers or health sites such as WebMD), or a chat with your doctor, and you can essentially create the same profile.
Disclosure – I work for a medical practice that cares exclusively for members of a large non-profit health plan.
I think this is interesting just from a more-knowledge perspective. With all the training and healthy eating we do it’d be nice to know where things stand in our systems, even if it’s not perfect.
In my case I was able to get my doctor to run some blood work, but the interpretation was the problem. He didn’t know what to do with someone training for an Ironman; he had never seen anyone my number of hours of exercise (and they were quite low by ironman standards). The test is interesting, but what to do with it in your specific case and where you are in your training is the heart of the matter.
I am also surprised that they did not include inflammation, stress markers or hormones like testosterone in their tests.
Great questions about the interpretation issue, how personal results relate to training, and specific endurance training markers! As to training markers for athletes, InsideTracker now offers a “high performance” plan (insidetracker.com/high-performance) that covers select biomarkers for inflammation, oxygen & performance as well as strength & endurance.
Even more biomarkers are included in the “ultimate” plan, though I learned a lot as an age-group triathlete from the more limited high-performance plan. It gets your attention when the test results that come back as “needs improvement” are largely related to endurance!
In my experience, the InsideTracker team does know how to interpret the results for training purposes. For example, my Testosterone:Cortisol Ratio (T/C) looked like it was elevated to me (it was color coded yellow, as the other “needs improvement” markers were), but when I talked to the team about it, they said it was well in line with what it should be given the point I was at in training for a half Ironman.
InsideTracker is also working with a number of endurance athletes (including some pros and AGers like me) on testing at appropriate times during the race season, so I’d expect their triathlon specific recommendations to get even deeper/more relevant over time.
It is useful to note that most of your readers (and yourself) are several standard deviations out of the norm when it comes to exercise and nutrition. It seems that the recommendations (like lower B12 intake) and tests (no inflammation/stress markers) are more tailored to 5k weekend warriors than AG competitive or endurance athletes.
As an Ironman athlete and bit of a nutrition fan, I’ve worked with “Your Future Health” to do a blood-testing panel in the past.
One of the reasons I chose to work with them was their pitch that they do not compare the results to the “general population” as a regular lab would do. Obviously, many athletic/semi-healthy eaters would look more healthy on the blood test scales that labs use, even though they may be quite deficient based on their individual needs, because who goes to labs in general? Sick or healthy people?
I would be interested in seeing how these two services compare if you have any further interest in this category of services!
Thanks for the awesome work as usual!
Have you retested since 2011 when this was published? I’m curious as to any updates or opinions you may have regarding Inside Tracker? I am considering their Ultimate Service although it is very expensive! I want to make the most educated choice possible by reading all relevant material. Thanks!
Let me know if there are any questions I can answer for you as someone who loves InsideTracker so much I became an ambassador! We do need Ray to stop globetrotting long enough to do a re-take–he’s got a standing offer to see how much things have changed because it’s evolving pretty fast now! Personally, I started with the “High Performance” plan, and my next round will be an Ultimate to get a more comprehensive look. I’ve done 2 tests so far, and both were eye-openers. In a nutshell, iron and vitamin D are the big issues for me, and even though I knew that already, I didn’t realize a) how much it was inhibiting my performance as a triathlete and b) how to make nutrition changes to really make a difference. Turns out there are a lot of subtleties to how you absorb iron and I was making all kinds of mistakes. Considering how we tweak every other aspect of our performance as triathletes, it just makes sense to me to start with the “engine” that fuels it all…