Are we any closer to doing away with ‘one size fits all’ diets?

31 Jan 2018

Prof Lorraine Brennan, UCD. Image: Elaine Quinn

Prof Lorraine Brennan, one of the leading nutrition scientists in Ireland, tells us about her plans to do away with ‘one size fits all’ diets in favour of personalised ones.

Diet variants are a dime a dozen these days, with claims that taking out one food group from a diet could give someone increased energy or better health.

However, what works for one might not work for all, as Prof Lorraine Brennan of University College Dublin (UCD) knows quite well. Brennan is head of nutrition research at the university, and is principal investigator on a number of different projects, including a prestigious European Research Council award called A-Diet.

Her research group in the UCD Institute of Food and Health and in the UCD Conway Institute has been instrumental in the development of metabolomics for nutritional research. Their research has been published in more than 130 peer-reviewed publications, including in leading journals such as Nature, Diabetes, and Diabetologia.

Brennan is also director of the Nutrigenomics Association and secretary of the Irish section of the Nutrition Society.

What inspired you to become a researcher? Do you have any specific memories that set off a spark?

I have always been interested in figuring out how things work and, as a child, was always asking questions. I don’t remember anything specific sparking it; it was more or less always part of me!

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

My current research focuses on developing novel strategies for assessing of dietary intake and the development of personalised nutrition.

In order to deliver personalised nutrition advice, we need to know accurately what people are eating. Our work is developing biomarkers for objective measures of dietary intake.

Food is one of the six broad enterprise themes identified in the Government’s Innovation 2020 strategy; and another aspect of our work is to understand inter-individual response to dietary interventions and use these responses to deliver more personalised dietary advice.

For this aspect of the work, we engage with the Irish food industry with the aim of developing it as a global innovator, which ties in with the vision of Ireland becoming a global innovation leader.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Currently, one of the main challenges in nutrition research is the accurate assessment of dietary intake. The more traditional assessment methods rely on self-reporting, which can be problematic as people tend to under- or overestimate their food intake.

The work that is carried out in my laboratory aims to make a significant impact in this field by identifying new biomarkers of dietary intake.

It is envisaged that more accurate assessment of dietary intake will pave the way for personalised nutrition – a leap forward from the current ‘one size fits all’ dietary advice. Understanding these complex links is really important to ensure good nutrition and health for all.

In the long term, I believe our work will help in the delivery of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by ensuring good health and wellbeing for all.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

In some aspects of our work, we link directly with the food industry for the delivery of new food products. For example, we have previously worked with Monaghan Mushrooms to develop vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms, which are now commercially available.

Vitamin D deficiency is associated with weakened bones and there is increasing evidence that it also plays a role in the development of several chronic diseases.

Our work on personalised nutrition in the future has the potential to lead to commercial applications, but more basic research work is needed before that will become a reality.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

There are a number of challenges in the field of nutritional metabolomics, and one of the biggest issues, in my opinion, is metabolite identification.

Interpretation of data remains both difficult and time-consuming, and we need to try tackle this to ensure that meaning is given to metabolomics experiments.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research? How would you address them?

Nutrition research often suffers from people viewing it as a ‘soft science’. This really is a misconception as my research team is composed of people with backgrounds in chemistry, mathematics, pharmaceutical sciences and nutrition.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

One of the areas of research that I think should be tackled more is the area of food waste and what we can do with food waste products. We are starting to do some work in that area and see if we can develop new products of nutritional relevance from food waste.

We also need to start acknowledging the huge inter-individual variation that there is in response to food intake, and that the ‘one size fits all’ recommendations need to be changed.