A £5m programme to investigate the benefits of a plant-based diet has been confirmed by the University of East Anglia (UEA).
The university will lead a pioneering nutrition research programme to see how a plant-based diet can be beneficial for people’s health. Called the ‘Edesia: Plants, Food and Health’ project, PhD researchers from across the Norwich Research Park will work to unravel the complex relationship between plant-based foods, metabolism, gut microbiota and health.
Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the initiative is one of 23 to receive a share of £127m and brings together world-class expertise from UEA, the John Innes Centre, the Quadram Institute and the Earlham Institute. The cross-disciplinary initiative will see 25 PhD students – five each year starting in October 2020 – train in a wide range of disciplines, from plant science, nutrition and clinical trials, to population-based studies. The programme will help to address a gap in nutritional expertise in the UK. Looking further afield, it looks to tackle the shifting food security challenge of the 21st century, a switch from a diet that meets people’s basic calorie needs to one that is nutrient-rich.
Professor Ian Clark, from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, is the director of the project, taking over from founding director, Professor Aedin Cassidy, who has taken up a new post at Queen’s University Belfast but will remain an integral contributor to the programme. He commented: “The largest burden on the NHS stems from poor diet and food-related ill health, costing around £5.8bn per year.
“It has been estimated that dietary change could prevent more than 50 per cent of contemporary public health problems. The evidence very strongly shows that optimised diets play a major role in improving health, with plant-based diets also key to environmental sustainability.
“Fruit and vegetables supply most essential vitamins and micronutrients, as well as fibre, resistant starch, polyphenols, flavonoids and carotenoids in human diet. But these benefits have been poorly understood or overshadowed by the concentration on calorie intake over the past 40 years. We want to change that.”
The Edesia project is named after the Roman goddess of food who emphasised the good things we get from our diets and reflects a growing recognition that plant-based foods are critical in tackling chronic illness such as cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Professor Cathie Martin, co-director of the programme from the John Innes Centre, added: “The loss of plant-based, unrefined foods from the human diet means more people are burdened with nutritional insecurity and associated chronic illnesses. Understanding how plant-based foods promote and protect health will underpin effective future dietary recommendations, food choices and food production. If we want to improve the health of future societies worldwide, we need more evidence and this programme will start to address that.”
And Professor Ian Charles, Director of the Quadram Institute, concluded: “Understanding the impacts of food on health is a complex challenge, which demands an interdisciplinary approach that combines complementary expertise. This programme will allow a new generation of PhD students to benefit from that expertise across the institutes of the Norwich Research Park and equip them with the skills and knowledge to address nutritional challenges society is facing.”