The New Science of Nutrition – Part One

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by Andrew Shao, Ph.D., vice president, Global Government Affairs, Herbalife Nutrition
December 06, 2016

At the annual Council for Responsible Nutrition International scientific workshop in Hamburg, Germany, I recently gave the opening presentation, “From reductionism to holism: evolution of nutrition science” to scientists, regulators and officials from around the world. Following are some of the highlights from the presentation.

Compared to more established sciences like chemistry, physics and mathematics, nutrition science is a relatively new discipline. According to The Giessen Declaration, an important international workshop sponsored by the International Union of Nutritional Sciences and the World Health Policy Forum: ‘‘Nutrition science is defined as the study of food systems, foods and drinks, and their nutrients and other constituents; and of their interactions within and between all relevant biological, social and environmental systems.’’

In a short time, nutrition science has rapidly evolved from a simple, reductionist approach focusing on specific nutrients, to a complex systems approach. Reductionism refers to the practice of attempting to simplify something complex, like nutrition science, to the point where a broad audience can understand it.

In the early 20th century, the public health challenges around nutrition mainly focused on communicable disease and overt nutrient deficiencies. To address these concerns, the scientific focus of the time was devoted to the discovery of vitamins and essential minerals to combat the effects of hunger and malnutrition.

During this time, scientists believed that a single nutrient could cure or reverse a particular disease. The medical community and society of the day readily accepted the model because it was simple and based on three premises:

  1. A cause-effect relationship exists between a specific disease and a particular nutrient.
  2. Each nutrient deficiency disease can be explained physiologically in terms of the role played by the respective nutrient.
  3. Providing the nutrient in the diet can prevent, and in many cases reverse, the disease.1

That model was appropriate for addressing the then challenges of overt nutrient deficiency. However, over the course of the 20th century in Western countries, the situation changed rapidly. Public health and nutrition challenges, which had been rooted in deficiency, shifted to problems of excess. By mid century, the major public health focus transitioned from communicable diseases and malnutrition to lifestyle related chronic diseases. These contemporary challenges2 are due to a combination of poor diet, reduced physical activity, rapidly aging population, rapidly expanding population, climate change and food security concerns.


Nutrition Science Progress?

In response to these challenges, public and private investments in science and research have achieved some important milestones including:

  • Improved understanding of the role of diet and nutrition in the etiology of chronic disease.
  • Advances in cell and molecular biology and biochemistry to allow for a better understanding of macro and micronutrient metabolism and mechanisms of action.
  • Identification of nutrients linked to chronic disease – calcium, folate, vitamin, omega-3s and fiber.
  • The discovery, study and use of other bioactive substances found in foods, such as isoflavones, carotenoids, anthocyanins and catechins.
  • Advances in the understanding of the impact of the microbiome on immunity, obesity and cognitive function.
  • Advances in the various “omics” technologies – genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics, along with epigenetics.

But the importance of healthy diet and lifestyle has not had the anticipated impact. Diet and lifestyle have emerged as major contributors to death3 and have resulted in the global obesity epidemic4 and proliferation of co-morbidities such as diabetes5. The nutrition imbalance, where nutrient adequacy is trending downward while energy excess keeps going up, has contributed to a paradox of obesity combined with undernutrition. Populations have become overfed, but undernourished.6

Check out later this week for Part Two of this post.

1Raubenheimer and Simpson. Annu. Rev. Nutr. 2016. 36:603–26
2 Anjana, RM et al. Indian J Med Res 133, April 2011, pp 369-380
3Conover, CJ The American Health Economy Illustrated, 2012
4World Health Organization Global Health Observatory (GHO) data. Global overweight and obesity prevalence.  Source: World Health Organization
5NCD Risk Factor Collaboration The Lancet 2016; 387: 1513–30
6Miller, et al. J. Nutr. 2009; 139: 1198–1202.

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