‘An exciting time for nutrition research’ – JPI HDHL Scientific Advisory Board interview

There is much more knowledge about the link between nutrition and health, including brain health, than a decade ago when the Joint Programming Initiative ‘A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life’ (JPI HDHL) started. Nutrition professors Edith Feskens and John Mathers, the chair and vice-chair of the JPI HDHL Scientific Advisory Board, discuss the most significant scientific achievements and the research objectives for the coming years.

Why is this initiative so important?
Feskens: ‘Even though everyone in the European Union agrees that research on food, nutrition and health is essential, it is often overlooked and underfunded. Therefore, it’s very important that we align our national research agendas. The nice thing about JPI HDHL is that we look at a healthy diet and a healthy exercise habit, because these are health habits you can also influence together.’
Mathers: ‘The benefits to society would be immense if we better understood the scale of the problems arising from unhealthy eating habits and inadequate physical activity and if we could solve them. JPI HDHL has an opportunity to shape the research agenda.’
Feskens: ‘In addition to a scientific board, JPI HDHL also has a stakeholder advisory board, which includes the food industry, policymakers, patient groups and the WHO. We have more impact than individual scientists because we work with a large group of European countries, as well as Canada, and our various stakeholders.’

'We are just beginning to understand the link between nutrition, the microbiome and conditions like asthma, dementia and diabetes.’

At the 6th international JPI HDHL conference in April, you stressed that much progress has been made in nutrition and health research in the past 10 years.
Mathers: ‘Yes, we understand so much more now about the basic ways nutrition influences all aspects of our bodies. For instance, we realised that there is a whole group of common diseases that have origins in obesity, a growing problem worldwide. Examples include dementia, diabetes and several cancers. We also know now that what we eat combined with our physical activity probably has the most important effect on the microbiome, the bacteria and fungi in our bodies, and that this is much more important than our genetics. We are just beginning to understand the link between nutrition, the microbiome and conditions like asthma, dementia and diabetes.’

What important research has been carried out through JPI HDHL so far?
Feskens: ‘A few significant examples are the following. Until now, research on what people eat has been based on questionnaires, but there is usually underreporting of unhealthy food, so it’s more objective to look at blood and urine samples. This research is still in its infancy, but we can determine things like when you drank Coca-Cola, beer, wine, tea, coffee or milk. We’re also thinking about the possibilities of ‘smart plates’ which can tell us exactly what someone puts on their plate. We’re trying to use all the advances in fields like chemistry and IT. The next step is looking into the effect of the food people eat. We also did a project on malnutrition in the elderly, many of whom don’t eat healthily or enough. As a result, they lose muscle mass more quickly, feel weaker and fall more often. To get this on the European agenda, we need to understand the scope of the problem in different countries. We therefore created uniform tools and criteria to define, measure, diagnose and eventually treat this.’

John Mathers and Edith Feskens

JPI HDHL is currently developing its implementation plan for the years 2022-2024. What will happen in the coming years?
Feskens: ‘We want to work on a more interdisciplinary level, so we nutritionists need to collaborate with scientists in other disciplines and areas, such as neurology and microbiology, to solve problems. We also plan to take socioeconomic health inequalities into account in every call. This is a problem everywhere: people with lower incomes and education have more nutrition-related diseases and a shorter life expectancy. How can we best approach these groups to change behaviour? The importance of sustainability will also be high on the agenda. Topics like food waste and reducing our meat intake.’
Mathers: ‘Nutrition is at the centre of big societal issues, such as climate change, which will become even more important in the decades to come. Understanding what we eat, where it’s produced and how it’s processed: all of these things matter in terms of greenhouse gases, environmental degradation and biodiversity.’

'The importance of sustainability will also be high on the agenda. Topics like food waste and reducing our meat intake.’

What else would you still like to research?
Mathers: ‘Of course, we have known that nutrition matters to the brain for a long time, but this has been very difficult to study. We can now look inside people’s heads using imaging technologies, which show us what’s happening, and we can grow tiny brains from stem cells in the lab. We are beginning to realise how important nutrition is for brain health, from embryo to old age. There are many common brain-related problems, like depression, for example, which are also linked to obesity and what we eat. We want to get more proof about this correlation. There is also more and more evidence to suggest that the microbiome has interactions with our brain, meaning what we eat influences our gut bacteria, which in turn influences brain function. This is an exciting time for nutrition research.’

Do you have any healthy food tips for readers?
Mathers: ‘Develop healthy habits early on. Encourage children to try lots of different types of fruits and vegetables. Then you can enjoy your food without having to worry about whether you’re eating the right things.’
Feskens: ‘If you are overweight, try to substantially reduce portion sizes. Also, don’t underestimate the calories in alcohol and I can recommend everyone to eat lots of vegetables.’

As nutrition professors, do you always eat healthily?
Feskens: ‘I started eating healthier since COVID-19 because I work from home and usually buy healthy food in the supermarket, whereas before I travelled a lot and often ate large meals from buffets in hotels. Exercise is my weak point, though, a topic JPI HDHL also addresses.’
Mathers: ‘I grow my own fruits and vegetables, and the pandemic gave me more time to work in my garden and to cook. I had already developed good eating habits, but today I ate a lot of cake for my grandson’s birthday. In general, food should be enjoyed, just in moderation.’

Edith Feskens is professor of Global Nutrition, co-chair of the Division of Human Nutrition and Health at Wageningen University, and chair of the JPI HDHL Scientific Advisory Board.

John Mathers is professor of Human Nutrition, director of the Human Nutrition Centre and director of the Centre for Healthier Lives at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, and vice-chair of the JPI HDHL Scientific Advisory Board.

More information

Text: Thessa Lageman
Publication date: September 28, 2021

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