Reflecting on Our Commitment to Nutrition Research

A diverse, multi-generational family shares a Thanksgiving meal.

As we usher in November, most of us are looking forward to the Thanksgiving holiday at the end of the month. It’s a special time to celebrate family and community by sharing a meal. It’s also a fitting time to reflect on NICHD’s commitment to research on nutrition.

Understanding and defining optimal nutrition, as well as the consequences of over- and undernutrition, have long been part of the institute’s portfolio. Among the institute’s first major accomplishments was confirming the effectiveness of dietary therapy for the treatment and prevention of phenylketonuria, a rare disorder that causes the amino acid phenylalanine to build up in the body. In the 1980s, NICHD funded the work of the late David Barker, whose hypothesis about adverse nutrition in early development changed the paradigm of how many adult diseases are studied, highlighting the importance of their developmental origins.

In NICHD’s strategic plan, nutrition serves as a cross-cutting theme, meaning it is integrated into our five major research themes. For example, our Pediatric Growth and Nutrition Branch (PGNB) recently co-hosted a workshop with the Food and Drug Administration on Bioactive Ingredients in Infant Formula. The workshop focused on the state-of-the-science of biologically active human milk components, their analogs, and safety implications when used in infant formula. Earlier this year, PGNB hosted the Breastmilk Ecology: Genesis of Infant Nutrition webinar series to explore human milk as a complex biological system. Furthermore, one of the aspirational goals in our strategic plan is to optimize infant survival by synthesizing human milk—capturing all its components and properties—and individualizing it to the characteristics of the infant’s mother. These activities support the institute’s commitment to ensuring safe, efficacious, and context-specific infant feeding practices in the United States and globally.

Our nutrition research portfolio goes beyond just infant feeding and physiology. For instance, our Pediatric Trauma and Critical Illness Branch supports studies of food insecurity in children with critical illnesses. The Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDDs) Branch funds work on weight loss in adolescents with IDDs. A study funded by our Gynecologic Health and Disease Branch found that consuming more dairy products in adolescence reduced the risk for endometriosis. Our intramural researchers are conducting the Pregnancy Eating Attributes Study (PEAS) and the Development of Eating Behaviors in Early Childhood Study (SPROUTS) to understand eating behaviors and diet quality during pregnancy, postpartum, and childhood, as well as studies on iron metabolism to understand the role of iron in neurodegeneration and overall health.

In January, restructuring made the Office of Nutrition Research (ONR) into a trans-NIH effort, reinforcing nutrition as an integral part of many institute and center research portfolios. This reorganization enables ONR to engage all NIH institutes and centers in implementing the 2020-2030 Strategic Plan for NIH Nutrition Research, which centers on precision nutrition. NICHD staff worked diligently and successfully to advocate for inclusion of our populations of interest (i.e., women, children, and people with disabilities) in NIH’s long-term nutrition strategy.

As we gather to celebrate this month, I am thankful for all of NICHD’s work—historical and current—on nutrition and its role in health and disease. I also encourage everyone to review the NIH strategic plan to get a more complete picture of nutrition research.

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