Experts and health organizations call for ‘stronger, better-funded’ federal nutrition research

By Mary Ellen Shoup contact

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages / Jane_Kelly
©GettyImages / Jane_Kelly

Related tags: nutrition research, federal funding

The US must strengthen and increase funding for federal nutrition research to accelerate critical discoveries, and most importantly, improve public health, say a group of research, policy, and government experts in a new report.

In a paper​published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition​, the authors identified “stark national nutrition challenges” ​within the US, which have only been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and could be alleviated by coordinated cross-departmental efforts and additional funding.

According to the report, the number of adults with diabetes has more than doubled over the past 20 years, and today, half of all American adults suffer from diabetes or pre-diabetes. In addition, cardiovascular disease affects about 122 million Americans and causes roughly 840,000 deaths each year.

 "Every day, our country suffers massive health, social, and economic costs of poor diets. The COVID-19pandemic has further highlighted the burdens of diet-related diseases on population resilience​," said principle investigator of the paper, Dariush Mozaffarian, M.D., Dr.P.H., dean and Jean Mayer Professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

"The nation has come together to achieve major science challenges in the past, such as putting a man on the moon.We need a similar major national effort to address current nutrition challenges, generating the critical science to rapidly treat and prevent diet-related diseases, improve health equity, increase population resilience to COVID-19 and future pandemics, and drive fundamental and translational discoveries for better lives​."

Harmonization and coordination needed

Currently, nutrition research is separately conducted and supported by more than 10 federal departments and agencies.

However, their relative investments in nutrition research have remained flat or declined over several decades—even as diet-related conditions and their societal burdens have climbed, noted authors of the paper.

“Coordination also remains suboptimal, documented by multiple governmental reports over 50 years. Greater harmonization and expansion of federal investment in nutrition science, not a silo-ing or rearrangement of existing investments, has tremendous potential to generate new discoveries to improve and sustain the health of all Americans,”​ authors of the paper stated.

Recommendations: New leadership and strengthened investment

The paper proposed two strategic recommendations to harmonize and pool together efforts in the area of nutrition research and public health policy.

First, authors recommended improving cross-government coordination of nutrition research, through policies such as a new Office of the National Director of Food and Nutrition in the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) and a new US Task Force on Federal Nutrition Research modeled after other timely task forces such as the Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, which resulted in a comprehensive national action plan that united agencies under a “common critical agenda.”

“Modeled on that successful task force, the leadership, members, and general functions of a Task Force on Federal Nutrition Research would develop and report to the President on a major new National Action Plan for accelerating and strengthening nutrition discoveries.”

A major disadvantage to this plan, however, is that a task force usually has a defined scope over a set time period and does not provide sustained leadership and coordination into the future, noted authors.

The paper’s second key recommendation is strengthening and accelerating nutrition research within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including creating a new National Institute of Nutrition and the return of the Office Of Nutrition Research (ONR) on the NIH Office of the Director.

“These strategies were found to be complementary, together catalyzing important new science, partnerships, coordination, and returns on investment,”​ the paper added.

The paper also identified additional opportunities within the USDA including increased investment in nutrition research for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and its network of Human Nutrition Research Centers, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) extramural research programs, and the Economic Research Service (ERS) programs, which assesse demographic, social, informational, and economic determinants of dietary consumption and associated health outcomes.

Opportunity with greater coordination

“The identified specific options would help create the new leadership, strategic planning, coordination, and investment the nation requires to address the multiple nutrition-related challenges before us, and grasp the corresponding opportunities,”​ the paper stated.

“The opportunities to be gained by greater coordination and investment in federal nutrition research are clear, with potential for large and rapid ROI,” ​said the authors. 

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