In this age of dwindling resources and competing priorities, nutrition research holds the key to increasing our understanding of the causes of obesity and its related co-morbidities and, thus, holds promise to markedly influence global health and economies.
Proper nutrition offers one of the most effective and least costly ways to decrease the burden of chronic and non-communicable diseases and their risk factors, including obesity. Diseases and conditions intrinsically linked to obesity include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer—4 of the 10 leading causes of preventable death. Worldwide, more than 10 percent of the adult population is obese, according to 2008 estimates.
Healthcare costs related to obesity are close to 21 percent in the U.S.—although lower than in other countries, healthcare costs related to obesity are still significant. The importance of nutrition as an integral part of the solution to many societal, environmental, and economic challenges facing the world has just started to be fully appreciated.
The American Society for Nutrition (ASN) recently identified the “grand” challenges facing nutrition research and science in the 21st century, termed Nutrition Research Needs. Advancing these six urgent Nutrition Research Needs has strong potential to have a highly beneficial impact on the future health and well-being of global populations. The following Nutrition Research Needs can provide the basis for solutions to many health-related issues, allowing individuals to lead healthier, more productive lives.
- Variability in Individual Responses to Diet and Food – Different factors in each individuals’ make-up (genetics, gut microbial populations, etc.) lead to varying responses to diet or specific food components. Research will allow us to achieve personalized nutrition—detailed dietary recommendations tailored to each person’s individual needs. Such research will pave the way to predicting an individuals’ future health status.
- The Impact of Nutrition on Healthy Growth, Development, and Reproduction – Research will allow us to understand how nutrition during critical, early periods of development, including pregnancy, impacts future health. Diet and exposure to certain food components during early life can alter normal developmental progression and contribute to disease later in life.
- The Role of Nutrition in Health Maintenance – Nutrition can help us harness the ability to improve health through noncommunicable disease prevention and weight maintenance. Continued research in these areas is paramount to improve the health and well-being of future generations and economies.
- The Role of Nutrition in Medical Management – Research will show how to slow disease progression through nutrition and allow us to achieve improved responses to therapy and survival rates. Better defining the role that nutrition plays in disease initiation and progression will also minimize unfavorable impacts of both reduced and elevated nutrient intakes on disease.
- Nutrition-Related Behaviors - Research can clarify how the human brain influences food choice and nutrition-related behaviors, leading to more effective nutrition standards and food policies to help combat obesity and other chronic diseases of public health importance.
- Food Supply/Environment – Research is needed to help us realize the potential of the food environment to improve diet and lifestyle choices. Food accessibility (where foods are sold, what types of foods are available, and their proximity to the consumer), affordability, marketing, and culture all have a significant influence on an individual’s food choices and diet quality.
In addition to the research agenda, ASN identified five cross-cutting tools that are essential to advance nutrition research to the next level in the 21st century: omics (genomics, proteomics, or metabolomics); bioinformatics; databases; biomarkers; and, cost effectiveness analysis. The development of new tools will let researchers more effectively quantify dietary intake and food waste and quantify the impact of current nutrition standards, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). Without development of these tools, cutting-edge, translatable research in nutrition science will not occur.
I hope that these Nutrition Research Needs will prompt collaboration among scientists from all disciplines to advance this challenging research agenda, given the high potential to translate the research findings into tremendous public health gains for all of society. Findings from the Nutrition Research Needs have great potential to stimulate the development and adoption of new and innovative strategies that can be applied towards the prevention and treatment of nutrition-related diseases. The multidisciplinary nature of nutrition research requires stakeholders with differing areas of expertise to collaborate on multifaceted approaches so they can establish evidence-based nutrition guidance and policies that will lead to better health for the global population.
Of course, strong investment is necessary, in addition to multidisciplinary collaboration, to support the innovative research that is required. To realize the full, positive impact of good nutrition on preventing disease and improving public health of global populations, we must have the will to invest in and support the future of nutrition research.
Republished with permission of the Altarum Institute