£5 million programme to study benefits of a plant-based diet

20th September 2019

The University of East Anglia will lead a pioneering nutrition research programme to see how a plant-based diet can be beneficial for people’s health.

The ‘Edesia: Plants, Food and Health’ project will see PhD researchers from across the Norwich Research Park 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 £127 million and brings together world-class expertise from UEA, the Quadram Institute, the John Innes Centre and the Earlham Institute.

Norwich Research Park

The Edesia project is named after the Roman goddess of food who emphasised the good things we get from our diets. And it reflects a growing recognition that plant based foods are critical in tackling chronic illness such as cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

It aims to advance our understanding of plant-based nutrition and address diet-related chronic illness globally.

Prof Ian Charles, director of the Quadram Institute, said: “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.”

Prof Ian Clark from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences is the director of the project, taking over from founding director Prof Aedin Cassidy, who has taken up a new post at Queen’s University Belfast but will remain an integral contributor to the programme.

He said: “The largest burden on the NHS stems from poor diet and food-related ill health, costing around £5.8 billion 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 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.

Prof Clark added: “We are very excited to be awarded this Wellcome Trust PhD programme, which will use the extensive research expertise across the NRP from crop to clinic, to understand how plant-based foods promote and protect health. We are also committed to pursuing a strong and supportive research culture in this programme, providing excellence in science alongside a high quality research environment to train the next generation of nutrition scientists.”

Prof Cathie Martin, co-director of the programme from the John Innes Centre, said: “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 world-wide we need more evidence and this programme will start to address that.”

Earlier this year a major international report published by the EAT-Lancet Commission highlighted that food represents one of the greatest health and environmental challenges of the 21st century and stressed the urgent need to focus on high plant food diets.

The report calculated that a change to high plant based foods with limited animal food and unhealthy foods would prevent an overall 11 million deaths per year.

The Edesia programme also addresses several UN sustainable development goals on hunger, poverty, inequality, responsible consumption patterns and climate action.

The Wellcome funding signals a new approach to blend scientific excellence with a commitment to improving research culture. The programme includes holistic support for the personal, professional and technical development of students during their PhD and in the transition to the next stage of their career.

Anne-Marie Coriat, head of UK and Europe Research Landscape at Wellcome, said: “Excellence in science and culture can exist side by side. Each of the funded programmes is built on high-quality research training that will explore a wide range of exciting topics, from understanding the inner workings of distinct cell types to public health economics, from plant-based nutrition to health data science.

“At the same time, we’ve seen new ways that we can work together as a community to bring science and culture together, placing both firmly at the heart of what we do.”

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