With its well-earned reputation for culinary — and other — excess, New Orleans seems an unlikely base for a cutting-edge weight-loss business.
“Or,” said GenoVive founder Vic Castellon, “maybe that makes it the perfect place.”
Or, maybe it doesn’t matter. Ever heard that some people stay trim because of good genes? Castellon’s company puts a different spin on that concept: Genetics can be the key to losing weight.
GenoVive is a large player in a niche diet market. Like pretty much any weight-loss company, it tries to get people to eat fewer calories. But, our bodies are accustomed to more, which is why we need to diet in the first place.
“A lot of people feel the less you eat the better it is, and it is not necessarily true,” Castellon said. “You have to feed your metabolism the proper way.”
Castellon learned that personally. He built a company, Bovigen, that used DNA research to increase muscle mass in cattle, eventually selling the company to Pfizer pharmaceuticals.
In the three years following Hurricane Katrina, Castellon gained a considerable amount of weight.
Then, a thought: If DNA could be the key to weight gain, how about weight loss? Scientists who had worked for him thought it possible. Castellon researched the subject, held human clinical trials, then discovered that the Harvard School of Public Health was working on a similar study.
The studies resulted in a diet concept. Customers first pay to have their DNA analyzed so GenoVive can provide food customized to their metabolism. According to the GenoVive’s website, the tests indicate some people cannot metabolize carbohydrates well, while dietary fat is a problem for others. DNA also indicates what type of exercise would be more effective.
The customer receives a report that recommends a diet and exercise program. Customers may buy meals from GenoVive or try to follow the guidelines on their own. Castellon said meals cost about $14 a day, and have no preservatives, hormones or additives.
“We send them a report. It’s all HIPPA protected,” Castellon said, referring to federal medical privacy laws. “It gives you kind of a road map. Our genome is a road map on what happens in our lives, so we kind of give the individual a road map.”
Walker and Peggy Pitts, of Metairie, started using GenoVive in late April after his younger brother’s death made them concerned about their lifestyle. Walker Pitts, 66, said he has dropped from 233 pounds to 197 pounds since then, and Peggy has lost 40 pounds.
A month’s worth of food is delivered at a time, and daily portions include breakfast, lunch (usually soup), dinner, and morning and afternoon snacks. He said GenoVive has substituted meals and snacks based on what he and his wife liked and disliked. The plan provides six days of meals per week; they can experiment on the seventh day.
“For the most part, as far as being satisfied or sated, it’s been OK,” he said. “At no point in a day, if I eat everything in the box, do I feel like I’m hungry. When I go to bed at night, I don’t feel like my stomach’s growling or anything like that. So, the quantities have been pretty good.”
GenoVive is tiny compared with industry giants like Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig. Castellon said the company has 1,240 customers since starting in 2012. But, in DNA-specific diets, he said GenoVive is the market leader in the United States, Brazil and Mexico. The company website lists a scientific advisory board that includes current or former faculty members from LSU, Yale University, the University of North Carolina, Florida State University and Arizona State University.
When a customer decides to quit ordering GenoVive food, the company provides recommendations for maintaining the weight loss, Castellon said.
“Everybody is looking for the magic bullet,” Castellon said. “Everybody is looking for a quick way to get to the weight that they want to be or dress size or pants size, but the problem is we have to work with our bodies, and we have to know our bodies and we have to know what works for us individually, and this is where the personalized diet system came from.”