A Special Moment in Time

It’s been 100 days since I joined the NIH Office of Nutrition Research as Director, and I’m energized. I’m energized by the availability of powerful new scientific tools; I’m energized by the passion of our research community; and I’m energized by the opportunity to address important questions related to nutrition and health that will touch populations across generations. There is so much excitement in the air right now – I see this moment as truly special for the nutrition research community. Long overdue is widespread recognition that nutrition is a central and multidimensional driver of health. Nutrition is integral to all aspects of human biology; it’s the tide that lifts all boats.

And, we have support from the highest levels, evidenced by the White House National Strategy for a whole-of-government and whole-of-America approach to addressing ending hunger and diet-related diseases. Numerous professional societies whose missions center on nutrition at various life stages are also eager to build on this interest and momentum to better understand and transform the role of nutrition in our lives.

But enthusiasm, energy, and community support aside, what’s missing is evidence.

Effective programs and policies need to be backed by solid science. That science needs to be broader than the current knowledge base focused traditionally on nutrients through biochemical and chemical studies. We as nutrition scientists have the opportunity to tap into exciting new areas of science, and expertise from many other disciplines is needed to expand and inform a holistic nutritional ecology: artificial intelligence (AI), neuro- and microbiology, ‘omic’ technologies, environmental science, sociology, and many others.

Now is the time. Now is our time. This is our moment to be inclusive and expansive in creating the evidence that will change the lives of individuals, families, communities, and nations. And our vista needs to be broad – looking across the lifespan, in an inclusive and equitable manner, from birth to death.

Nutrition Research Across the Lifespan: Critical Life Stages and Research Questions

Remarkably, birth is not even the first point in time that nutrition is relevant in our lives. What parents eat can affect a child’s development even before the child is conceived. Tastes and smells encountered during and before birth and in the first days to weeks of life can shape childhood and lifelong healthy or unhealthy food preferences. Food and environmental exposures during pregnancy and early life can even extend across generations – a central tenet of the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (or DOHaD) hypothesis.

•    Example research question: Can we identify and “reprogram” epigenetic factors linked to transgenerational disease susceptibility toward promoting resilience and preventing disease?

The teen years are a time of multiple new exposures and a proving ground for developing healthy habits for life. That includes nutritional choices and physical activity that set up success for adulthood. Nutrition research is essential to understanding the influence of environments outside home where adolescents spend most of their time. Key areas for deeper understanding and intervention include school-based nutrition programs, restaurants and corner stores, youth sport venues, and the outsized role of social media on youth’s daily activities.

•    Example research question: Can we tap into social media data for AI-informed analyses to better understand eating and physical behaviors in the everyday lives of youth and how that affects their nutritional status?

Middle age, considered by many the prime of life, also brings significant physiological changes that affect health; it’s also a time when many individuals struggle with their weight. Many diet-related diseases are diagnosed during this time, reflecting the value of defining and implementing preventive strategies earlier in life. As well, many middle-aged adults are members of the “sandwich generation” who often care for their own children and aging parents. These dual roles present many challenges, including paying attention to personal nutritional needs amid many competing responsibilities.

•    Example research question: How do we consider and manage the individual and societal risks and benefits of newly approved obesity drugs and their impact on an individual’s nutritional status?

Older adults face aging-related factors such as cognitive decline, mental health disorders like depression, and social isolation. All of these can affect eating behaviors. In turn, compromised nutrition can put individuals in this population at risk for falls and injuries, limited mobility, cognitive impairment, and – unfortunately – even premature death. Furthermore, unique problems like swallowing disorders may require the help of physical/occupational therapists and dietitians to help these individuals enjoy eating while staying safe and healthy.

•    Example research question: What are the nutrient needs in different populations of older adults and how can we involve the entire health care team in their care to optimize healthy aging?

Given the tremendous opportunity of this moment and our Office’s commitment to better understanding the role of nutrition in optimizing health throughout the lifespan, inclusive and innovative research has never been more important. This is our time to expand the study of nutrition beyond a focus on single nutrients to that of the nutriome. A range of other cross-cutting research areas attract our interest and attention, including (but certainly not limited to):

•    The relationships between food, nutrition, and the gut microbiome across days, weeks, and years
•    The reciprocal relationship between climate change and food systems and its impact on individual, neighborhood, and community health 
•    The interplay of nutrition with immune system development and function  
•    The gut-brain axis and role of nutritional status on neurodevelopment and cognitive function throughout the lifespan 
•    The relationship between nutrition and pharmacology  

What other research questions and topics are we missing? Those listed above are just a fraction of topics relevant to a nutritional ecology and the study of nutrition as both an input and outcome of health. From this framework, we can continue to learn and derive targeted solutions for nutrition-related challenges from birth to death in the numerous environments in which people live their lives.

Let’s seize this moment to work together, creatively and with open minds, toward a better future for ourselves and the planet we inhabit. I welcome comments, feedback, and suggested new directions any time. Please note the “Request a Session” button for NutRitioNaLS – NIH Research on Nutrition Listening Sessions, located on the ONR Website. Until then, thanks for reading, and please subscribe to receive ONR email updates.

Nutrition Is Who We Are!

Drew Bremer