Our Senior Research Interpretation Officer, Daphne Katsikioti, says studying what people eat is important but challenging to measure
People do not eat foods in isolation but in combination to form an overall diet. This is complex, and dietary pattern research aims to understand how different components of the diet interact with one another. Dietary guidance in many countries is focused on eating patterns, and research is rapidly expanding to establish what the best diet for our health is.
Eating is a complex behaviour, and it varies over different stages of life. Advances in the methodology for studying dietary patterns strengthen our confidence on diet and lifestyle recommendations across the life span, and across different populations. This is an exciting area of research and there is much to learn about how dietary habits, timing of eating and different patterns can impact population health and influence the presence of disease.
Different ways to eat a healthy diet
The concept of healthy dietary patterns has been adopted in global health guidelines and a growing body of research has emerged on their health benefits. For instance, our Cancer Prevention Recommendations can be considered a healthy diet and lifestyle pattern. The Recommendations are strongly grounded in evidence: being physically active protects against weight gain, and greater body fatness is a risk factor for many cancers.
At the recent International Conference on Diet and Activity Methods (ICDAM), held online, Dr Angela Liese said there is not only one way to eat a healthy diet. Different combinations of foods with different intakes of protein, dairy, fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and fibre can form a high-quality diet. The evidence suggests that overall, healthy diet patterns can have a positive effect on health when compared with diets of poor quality such as those high in saturated fat, salt and sugar.
Different factors influence an individual’s dietary pattern, including socio-economic status, geographical region and ethnicity. There are many different ways of eating healthily, and dietary guidelines need to encompass these so that they are relevant across different populations.
Time to think about when you eat
Accumulating evidence suggests that it is not only “what” but also “when” and “how” we eat that may play a role in maintaining health. Research is increasingly trying to incorporate timing into how we conceptualise eating. It is possible that the time someone eats influences energy intake and consequently body fatness.
At the conference, Dr Yikyung Park said new tools combining nutrition and systems science can help identify healthy and unhealthy dietary patterns based on the timing of eating, to further advance dietary pattern research. These tools can then group people together based on their eating timings during the day and help identify the quality of their diet. This can improve dietary recommendations by adding messages on when, and how often, to eat during a day.
Local information, global guidelines
As people naturally eat a combination of foods, dietary patterns are difficult to define and this makes them difficult to study.
Dietary guidelines do not arise from individual study results, but from pooling the totality of the evidence. Even though the literature in dietary patterns is growing, the methods used to define the different dietary patterns are not standardised and need improvement. Dr Franziska Jannasch highlighted methodological approaches that can strengthen the analytical approach in nutrition research in order to draw stronger conclusions on dietary patterns and chronic disease prevention.
The future of nutrition science is looking bright – advances in dietary patterns research are focusing on building innovation and are helping inform and strengthen population health guidelines.
ICDAM is a conference in nutrition where high-quality and novel research is presented, aiming to improve how population diet is assessed. It was hosted by the University of Wageningen in February 2021.