The American Society of Nutrition’s (ASN’s) annual flagship meeting, NUTRITION 2023, returned in-person in Boston this year for the first time since 2019, bringing together more than 2,500 nutrition researchers, clinicians and communicators for its “homecoming” event. The program featured scientific symposia and educational sessions that covered a broad swath of timely topics, from digestive and cognitive health to global food systems and nutrition policies.
Though the subject matter was diverse, a unifying theme emerged: context is key. Here are a few notable ways this bigger-picture thinking played out across the sessions.
- Bioactives and the Food Matrix. Scientists and public health leaders continue to underscore the importance of food-based nutrition guidance in addition to nutrient-focused recommendations. Foods with similar nutrition profiles don’t necessarily impart the same health benefits of risks, and the total food matrix – the complex interplay of a food’s physical structure, macronutrients, micronutrients and bioactives – may be more directly tied to health outcomes than nutrients in isolation. Further emphasizing the important but underappreciated role of bioactives, researchers also called for quantifying bioactive intake recommendations for the advancement of human nutrition.
- Precision Nutrition. In addition to the many studies presented with an outright focus on precision nutrition – a tailored approach to nutrition based on each individual’s unique constellation of characteristics – it was notable that several others also couched their research findings in this context. Scientists repeatedly acknowledged that dietary interventions to mitigate the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, for example, or reduce inflammation, are all mediated by an individual’s health status, genetics, ethnicity, race, socioeconomic demographics and more. Different nutrition strategies will work differently for different people, and researchers are pursuing a number of innovative studies to enable personalized recommendations.
- Ultra-processed Foods. Another undeniable buzz word at this year’s meeting, ultra-processed foods (UPF) was the subject of much discussion and debate. While observational studies increasingly link UPF with poor health outcomes, the exact mechanism(s) underlying this relationship remain unclear. As researchers continue to explore how and why UPF affect health, and even work to align on a definition for the term, some consensus appears to be emerging: not all foods classified as UPF are created equal. A food’s nutritional and environmental impacts must also be considered in addition to its degree of processing. Some also advocated for country-specific definitions of UPF that take each nations food system and cultural norms around cooking and eating into account.
- Healthy, Sustainable Food Systems. Researchers, public health leaders and food system stakeholders have also converged around the need to address food’s role in sustainability. However, they also highlighted the need for a more holistic understanding of sustainable nutrition. A food’s environmental impact is one important factor. So too is its impact on people’s physical, social and economic well-being. Truly sustainable food system solutions must effectively strike a balance between each of these essential domains.
- Health Equity. Whether discussing research knowledge and gaps, dietary guidance, or nutrition policies and programs, much of this year’s dialogue was underpinned by the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. Addressing health disparities and inequities requires including diverse perspectives throughout the research process. It’s not only essential to recruit and retain underserved and underrepresented communities in nutrition studies, but also to ensure different racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds are reflected within research team. Increasing diversity brings broader, applicable lived experiences to the table, which are key to developing innovative and relevant nutrition solutions.
At FoodMinds, we understand the nutrition landscape is increasingly complex and staying rooted to the science is essential. Connect with us to learn more about our global scientific affairs and communications capabilities.
Jean Owen Curran, MS, RD is a Director at FoodMinds, a division of Padilla, in our Chicago office.