Royal Society Publishing

Human nutrition and food research: opportunities and challenges in the post-genomic era

Susan J. Fairweather-Tait

Abstract

Sequencing of the human genome has opened the door to the most exciting new era for nutritional science. It is now possible to study the underlying mechanisms for diet–health relationships, and in the near future dietary advice (and possibly tailored food products) for promoting optimal health could be provided on an individual basis, in relation to genotype and lifestyle. The role of food in human evolution is briefly reviewed, from palaeolithic times to modern–day hunter–gatherer societies. The aetiology of ‘diseases of modern civilization’, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and the effect of changes in dietary patterns are discussed. The risk of disease is often associated with common single nucleotide polymorphisms, but the effect is dependent on dietary intake and nutritional status, and is often more apparent in intervention studies employing a metabolic challenge. To understand the link between diet and health, nutritional research must cover a broad range of areas, from molecular to whole body studies, and is an excellent example of integrative biology, requiring a systems biology approach. The annual cost to the National Health Service of diet–related diseases is estimated to be in excess of £15 billion, and although diet is a key component of any preventative strategy, it is not given the prominence it deserves. For example, less than 1% of the £1.6 billion budget for coronary heart disease is spent on prevention. The polygenic and multifactorial nature of chronic diseases requires substantial resources but the potential rewards, in terms of quality of life and economics, are enormous. It is timely therefore to consider investing in a long–term coordinated national programme for nutrition research, combining nutritional genomics with established approaches, to improve the health of individuals and of the nation.

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