Nutritional Ecology: My First 100 Days

By: Andrew Bremer, M.D., Ph.D., M.A.S., Director, Office of Nutrition Research

Those of us who work in nutrition science fully recognize the importance of nutrition as both an input and an outcome of human health. But let’s face it – we have an identity problem. For many outside the field, understanding of the word nutrition is limited to familiar concepts like food groups, the food pyramid, and diet. And while we in the field recognize the limitations of this view, we have not done a great job at defining the scope of nutrition science for a broader audience.

Nutrition encompasses so much more. It is a complex biological system with internal and external inputs and outputs that relate to human biology and the world around us. Factors involved in this system beyond the food we grow, buy, and eat are hugely diverse, including household income, educational status, the food supply, and even climate variations. Together this system is better described as a nutritional ecology. Expanding the concept of nutrition from a one-dimensional construct (food-focused) into an ecological system of moving parts not only creates a more accurate picture, but also introduces a wealth of research opportunities that can address persistent, multidimensional problems that extend far beyond food.

In late September, I was honored to be named Director of the NIH Office of Nutrition Research (ONR). I am extremely grateful to inherit a solid framework built by my predecessor Christopher Lynch, Ph.D., who through years of diligence reinforced the importance of nutrition science as an area of research of interest to numerous NIH Institutes, Centers, and Offices. A year after public release of the 2020-2030 Strategic Plan for NIH Nutrition Research, ONR was elevated to an Office within the Office of the NIH Director. Our agency-wide mission is to accelerate progress in nutrition research by planning, coordinating, and incorporating nutrition as a critical element of the biomedical research enterprise.

As an internist, pediatric endocrinologist, and physician scientist, I have studied endocrine disorders, obesity, developmental origins of health and disease, and the role of nutrition in health throughout the life cycle. As we reflect on the span of events associated with human development, from the period of pregnancy through 2 years (“the first 1,000 days”), the time from age 2 to 21 years (“the next 7,000 days”), as well as throughout the aging process, there is a growing appreciation of the role of nutrition as an integral component of growth, development, and health.

In my first 100 days, I aim to kickstart the process of refocusing nutrition’s identity to that of an expansive, vibrant, and multifaceted ecosystem with several components that have to date received little attention. For example, new opportunities center on the bidirectional relationship between climate/environmental changes and food systems. Specifically, heat, drought, and floods are having dramatic effects on the food supply and delivery chains. Greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution, and environmental toxins are also altering the nutritional quality of staple crops. At the same time, the many components of the food system contribute to our changing climate and affect the availability of natural resources. Importantly, these relationships are reciprocal. Not only does the changing environment affect food systems, but food systems have important impacts on the environment in ways we are just beginning to understand. A deeper appreciation of these relationships facilitates our ability to address the interrelated issues of diet, health, and food/nutrition insecurity.

Equally important to considering evidence gaps in a diverse and inclusive way is solving them through the same equitable lens. By broadening awareness and scholarship of nutrition as an ecosystem, many new areas of study are coming into focus. Thus, we need to build and sustain a workforce that is excited about pursuing nutrition-related questions that are complex and difficult – but for which the answers will be life-changing.

As we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic inequities were quickly unmasked, and amplified, when the SARS-CoV-2 virus took hold of the global landscape without respect for physical or social boundaries. Tethered to social systems and policies, climate, and behavior, a nutritional ecology is equally global in scope and relevance. It is also prone to wide-ranging impacts, good and bad, from decisions made without research-based considerations.

How are we going to accomplish these goals? The most important first step is to open our doors to all. Yes, the inclusivity of a nutritional ecology means that everyone has a stake in the design and outcome of nutrition research. That’s not only scientists, but individuals and community leaders, businesses and farmers, the restaurant and food industry, schools, non-profit organizations, and many others in the United States and globally. Anyone reading this blog can be part of the solution.

I plan to expand ongoing conversations, and start new ones, to determine what we know and what we don’t know. Where are the evidence gaps that can be filled by rigorous research that considers nutrition as a biological variable?

Every system involved in human health is touched by nutrition. Daunting? Maybe. Exciting? Definitely. Nutrition research will prosper with new ideas, new voices, and new perspectives. Now is not the time to look within, but a time to look outward, as broadly as possible. I look forward to hearing from you at any time. Please note the “Request a Session” button for NutRitioNaLS – NIH Research on Nutrition Listening Sessions, located on the ONR Website. In addition, I look forward to reporting back frequently through this blog and other communication channels.

Until then, thanks for reading, and please subscribe to receive ONR email updates.

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