The Promise of Precision Nutrition Research

Multi-ethnic, multi-generational family members prepare a holiday dinner together in their home kitchen.

‘Tis the season to celebrate with family and friends. Food often plays a central role in our holiday festivities, from sharing a meal to exchanging traditional sweets. For many, December is a time to relax and indulge before focusing on healthy eating as the new year begins.

But what defines eating for health? Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all healthy diet. The emerging field of precision nutrition aims to deliver personalized dietary recommendations to optimize health and quality of life based on an individual’s genetics, gut microbes, and other biological, lifestyle, environmental, and social factors.

Precision nutrition is the central focus of the 2020-2030 Strategic Plan for NIH Nutrition Research. NICHD played a key role in shaping the plan and ensuring that our populations of interest—women, children, and people with disabilities—were included in NIH’s long-term nutrition strategy. The plan guides research to understand how what we eat affects us, investigate what and when we should eat for optimal health, define the role of nutrition across the lifespan, and determine how we can improve the use of food as medicine.

To advance toward these goals, the NIH Common Fund’s Nutrition for Precision Health, powered by the All of Us Research Program (NPH) will conduct a study to explore how individuals respond to different diets. NICHD co-chairs the working group that manages NPH.

Determining how to combine the multitude of factors that affect individual dietary responses will help inform more personalized nutrition recommendations. The NPH study will recruit a diverse pool of 10,000 participants from NIH’s All of Us Research Program to develop algorithms that predict individual responses to food and dietary patterns. Researchers will collect new data on potential predictive factors and combine them with existing All of Us data to gain a more complete understanding of how individuals respond to different foods and dietary routines.

Overall, NIH’s All of Us Research Program aims to advance personalized health care by enrolling at least one million participants to contribute their health data over many years. Recruitment efforts focus on reflecting the diversity of the United States and including participants from communities that have been historically underrepresented in health research. 

To date, All of Us has enrolled more than half a million people, all aged 18 years or older. Although many participants have provided electronic health records dating back to care received during their childhoods, I am excited about efforts to begin enrolling children and adolescents into this precision medicine effort. This fall, All of Us welcomed Sara Van Driest, M.D., Ph.D., as its first director of pediatrics. Dr. Van Driest is a pediatrician and researcher who co-led the Vanderbilt Integrated Center of Excellence in Maternal and Pediatric Precision Therapeutics (VICE-MPRINT) as part of NICHD’s MPRINT Hub. In her new position, she is leading development of a model for pediatric recruitment and family-based participation in All of Us.

Nutrition in childhood lays the foundation for lifelong health. Nutrition serves as a cross-cutting theme in the NICHD Strategic Plan, and we investigate its impacts from infancy, through childhood and adolescence, into the reproductive years and beyond. We still have much to learn about how genetics, the environment, and experiences in families and communities affect our nutrition and influence our overall health. I look forward to the insights that the All of Us program and other NIH research initiatives will bring in this regard.

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