While there still is much unknown about the novel coronavirus, we’ve already learned the painful lesson that people with diet-related chronic diseases are facing debilitating conditions and higher mortality rates from the infection. We know that despite decades of nutrition research and recommendations, diet-related chronic disease and the associated health care costs are on the rise.
As a nutrition scientist who has dedicated my career to advancing research between nutrition and disease, I know we need strong federal support and investment in precision nutrition research to help drive down health care costs and improve human health – and now is the time.
This month, the American Society of Nutrition’s Nutrition 2020 Conference attracted – remotely – a record attendance of more than 25,000 people from across the world for four days of educational sessions focused on the latest nutrition research findings. The National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins opened the meeting by presenting the NIH 2020-2030 Strategic Plan for Nutrition Research that focused on precision nutrition. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, also opened the door for precision nutrition, when it published its blueprint for science, which included food and nutrition, over the next five years.
Leading dietary guidance in the U.S. is based on the premise that the average American is healthy, but that is not the case. Six in 10 Americans have at least one chronic health condition; 40% have more than one. While chronic diseases are complex and multifactorial, diet is an underlying and modifiable risk factor associated with many chronic diseases – and, so, it can be a solution.
At the same time, nearly 80% of total health spending in the U.S. is attributed to diet-related noncommunicable diseases, and diet-related chronic disease costs to the U.S. economy are estimated to be $1 trillion annually. Reducing health care costs and improving the health of Americans are imperatives and require the nutrition science field to embrace the best, most advanced tools available.
In their latest strategies, the USDA and NIH have outlined a common goal in nutrition science – the use of precision nutrition. The field of precision nutrition, which focuses on how we respond differently to food, is moving rapidly. The effects of COVID-19 have shown us the inequity of how a disease can manifest itself for individuals, leaving some asymptomatic and causing death in others. The variation of individual responses to the virus mirrors the variation of individual responses to diet, especially in the diet-chronic disease relationship.
Food can be a solution to chronic disease. We are entering an age when individuals could have access to technologies and tools that empower them to match their diets with real-time information about healthy aging. Individual responses to nutrition are based on a variety of genetic, environmental and behavioral factors. Our biology, and hence nutrition needs, are unique and change over our lifetime. Empowering individuals with the tools that track health and diet over time can motivate positive health behaviors in a way that population-based dietary recommendations cannot.
Precision nutrition simultaneously addresses the two major challenges facing nutrition – individual biological responses and acceptance of dietary recommendations. At Texas A&M AgriLife, we’re exploring “real world” experiments that capture both the biological and behavioral dimensions of the diet-disease relationship. Imagine using a device similar in size and simplicity to an over-the-counter pregnancy test that speaks to a smart phone and allows individuals to track the impact of dietary changes on specific health indicators in real-time and how that could affect positive reinforcement. Focused funding and prioritization of precision nutrition will allow us and other universities to conduct these types of studies.
As research goes deeper into this field, consumers can expect to see personalized dietary recommendations based on certain characteristics – including age, lifestyle and sleep – that will help them eat the foods that best support their unique health needs. The commitment by NIH and USDA to the precision nutrition approach, coupled with universities like Texas A&M poised to lead this research, means that future is getting closer, but we must ensure the investments in that approach are strong.
Nutrition science through precision nutrition can unlock the power of food to improve public health and drive down health care costs.