The University of East Anglia to lead £5 million programme to study benefits of a plant-based diet
For many, many years, complementary and alternative therapists have understood the strong relationship between diet and health. In more recent years, the NHS has increasingly understood the benefits of a healthy diet although that has mostly been driven by concerns about high levels of obesity in the UK.
But shockingly, during their 5 to 6 years in medical school, doctors receive minimal training about the impact of diet and lifestyle choices on health and wellbeing.
Even more recently, natural health specialists have increasingly espoused the benefits of plant-based diets. While for many years the vegan diet has been adopted by those concerned about animal rights and environmental issues, an increasing number of people have changed mainly for health reasons, and anecdotal evidence continues to show that a plant-based diet has been beneficial for many who have tried it.
It is therefore excellent news that the UEA is leading on this pioneering nutrition research programme to see how a plant-based diet can be beneficial for people’s health.
The ‘Edesia: Plants, Food and Health’ project will see PhD researchers from across the Norwich Research Park work to unravel the complex relationship between plant-based foods, metabolism, gut microbiota and health.
Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the initiative is one of 23 to receive a share of £127 million and brings together world-class expertise from UEA, the John Innes Centre, the Quadram Institute and the Earlham Institute.
The Edesia project is named after the Roman goddess of food who emphasised the good things we get from our diets. And it reflects a growing recognition that plant-based foods are critical in tackling chronic illness such as cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
It aims to advance our understanding of plant-based nutrition and address diet-related chronic illness globally.
Prof Ian Clark from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences is the director of the project. He said:
The largest burden on the NHS stems from poor diet and food-related ill health, costing around £5.8 billion per year.
It has been estimated that dietary change could prevent more than 50 per cent of contemporary public health problems. The evidence very strongly shows that optimised diets play a major role in improving health, with plant-based diets also key to environmental sustainability.
Fruit and vegetables supply most essential vitamins and micronutrients as well as fibre, resistant starch, polyphenols, flavonoids and carotenoids in human diet. But these benefits have been poorly understood or overshadowed by the concentration on calorie intake over the past 40 years.
We want to change that.”
The cross-disciplinary initiative will see 25 PhD students – five each year starting in October 2020 – train in a wide range of disciplines, from plant science, nutrition and clinical trials, to population-based studies.
The programme will help to address a gap in nutritional expertise in the UK. Looking further afield it looks to tackle the shifting food security challenge of the 21st century – a switch from a diet that meets people’s basic calorie needs to one that is nutrient-rich.
Prof Clark added:
We are very excited to be awarded this Wellcome Trust PhD programme, which will use the extensive research expertise across the NRP from crop to clinic, to understand how plant-based foods promote and protect health. We are also committed to pursuing a strong and supportive research culture in this programme, providing excellence in science alongside a high-quality research environment to train the next generation of nutrition scientists.”
Prof Cathie Martin, co-director of the programme from the John Innes Centre, said: “The loss of plant-based, unrefined foods from the human diet means more people are burdened with nutritional insecurity and associated chronic illnesses.
Understanding how plant-based foods promote and protect health will underpin effective future dietary recommendations, food choices and food production. If we want to improve the health of future societies world-wide, we need more evidence and this programme will start to address that.”
Earlier this year a major international report published by the EAT-Lancet Commission highlighted that food represents one of the greatest health and environmental challenges of the 21st century and stressed the urgent need to focus on high plant food diets.
The report calculated that a change to high plant based foods with limited animal food and unhealthy foods would prevent an overall 11 million deaths per year.
The Edesia programme also addresses several UN sustainable development goals on hunger, poverty, inequality, responsible consumption patterns and climate action.
The Wellcome funding signals a new approach to blend scientific excellence with a commitment to improving research culture. The programme includes holistic support for the personal, professional and technical development of students during their PhD and in the transition to the next stage of their career.
Anne-Marie Coriat, head of UK and Europe Research Landscape at Wellcome, said:
Excellence in science and culture can exist side by side. Each of the funded programmes is built on high-quality research training that will explore a wide range of exciting topics, from understanding the inner workings of distinct cell types to public health economics, from plant-based nutrition to health data science.
At the same time, we’ve seen new ways that we can work together as a community to bring science and culture together, placing both firmly at the heart of what we do.”