06/21/18

Observations from the Nutrition2018 Conference

The American Society of Nutrition (ASN) held its inaugural Nutrition2018 conference last week in Boston. Previously, ASN held their conference in conjunction with the Experimental Biology (EB) meeting that takes place every year in the spring. The EB meeting is a compilation of various biology and nutrition organizations and societies. The meeting tends to be large, and it can be a bit unwieldy because of its size. So ASN ventured off on its own this year, holding its meeting separately from EB. There was a bit of uncertainty as to how the meeting would fare as a result of this change but, overall, I thought it went very well. Everything was well organized, and the science presented at the conference was first rate. It was an excellent nutrition science conference; maybe the best of its kind in the field. Aside from the 6 a.m. sessions instituted this year in order to fit everything in, I saw no issues.

As always, sessions at the conference were as diverse as the health/nutrition field itself. Topics ranged from “Is Dementia the New Heart Disease?” to “Is a Calorie a Calorie?” to “Childhood Obesity,” “Microbiome” and “Nutritional Immunology”.

As a long time attendee of this meeting and others like it, there were particular topics and trends that seemed to stand out to me more than others. Some of the hot issues I heard during the sessions and in the hallways while talking with peers included:

  1. Sustainability is on the rise. Not long ago, nutrition science conferences tended to focus on the health and disease implications of the foods and diets we consume. More recently, however, scientists are talking more and more about the environmental impact of the foods we eat, and the long-term ramifications of our choices on the health of the planet. Discussions on the wisdom of plant-based diets and animal protein sources were plentiful. Though this issue is far from resolved, there’s no doubt that new metrics for assessing diet quality will soon be in vogue, as our overall understanding of the food choices we make continues to evolve.
  2. Gut microbiome research is hot. Multiple researchers spoke about the potential health impact of the bacteria that reside in our large intestine, and the ability of diet and other lifestyle factors to alter our gut microbiome. Various researchers spoke about the impact of our gut bacteria on issues such as body weight/obesity, immune response, insulin sensitivity/diabetes, cardiovascular disease risk, etc. An issue that was hardly discussed a decade ago now seems to have become the center of the nutrition universe with respect to diet and disease. One speaker pulled much of the audience back to reality, however, when he cautioned that the field is still in its relative infancy, and folks attempting to subscribe irrefutable benefits of any food/probiotic/prebiotic on improving our gut microbiome and, ultimately, a particular health endpoint may be getting a bit out in front of the science at this point.
  3. Sugar remains controversial. A number of speakers cited research suggesting that sugar sweetened beverages are a principal factor in our obesity epidemic and should be avoided as much as possible. Even some industry speakers seemed to have changed their tune from just a few short years ago, acknowledging the need for the industry to create lower calorie, healthier alternatives, rather than stressing the wisdom of dietary choices, and the premise that all foods and beverages can exist as a part of a healthy diet. The science on sugars, however, does not appear to be so clear cut. Various speakers cited data indicating that while sugar intake in the United States began to ebb in the early 2000s, the obesity rate continued to climb in an almost linear fashion. This suggests that sugar is not the only culprit, and possibly not the strongest culprit, in our nationwide obesity crisis. Data presented at the conference suggests that this will remain a hotly debated issue in the coming years.
  4. The Food Industry Remains Under a Microscope. Fairly or not, the producers, marketers, and sellers of the foods we eat are being asked to serve as change agents, to develop new technologies and products that can help to solve many of our health and environmental issues. And most companies seem to be stepping up to the challenge, seeking to create foods with healthier nutrition and sustainability profiles. Similarly, industry-funded research has been heavily scrutinized in recent years, and food companies that support science are being asked to be more transparent in the ways that they support and conduct their research. Various organizations (including ASN) have created research integrity guidelines designed to serve as a blueprint that companies and academics should follow to restore faith in industry-sponsored science. Companies that fail to adhere to these guiding principles will undoubtedly face further criticism in the future.

Mitch Kanter, Ph.D., is the Chief Science Office at FoodMinds and head of our Nutrition Health and Wellness Science capability.