Pioneering research investigates healthy impact of a plant-based diet

The John Innes Centre will co-lead a pioneering research programme investigating how a plant-based diet could prevent chronic illness.

The Edesia: Plants, Food and Health PhD programme aims to advance understanding of plant-based nutrition from crop to clinic, initiating a step-change in nutritional research in the UK and addressing diet-related illness globally.

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

The unique cross-disciplinary PhD programme draws together world-class research expertise of the Norwich Research Park in a collaboration that includes the University of East Anglia (UEA), the John Innes Centre, Quadram Institute and Earlham Institute.

25 Edesia students – five each year over a five-year period – will work to unravel the complex inter-relationship between plant-based foods, metabolism, the gut microbiota and health outcomes.

The first PhD students will take up places in autumn 2020. The £5m award is part of £127m funding announced by the Wellcome Trust to support 23 new PhD programmes.

The programme will increase opportunities for metabolic engineering and optimising crops by state of the art approaches such as speed breeding and genome-editing.

Co-director of the programme Professor Cathie Martin FRS 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.”

Fruit and vegetables supply most essential vitamins and micronutrients as well as fibre, resistant starch, polyphenols, flavonoids and carotenoids in the human diet.

But these benefits have been poorly understood or overshadowed by the concentration on caloric intake over the past 40 years.

Professor Ian Clark from the UEA, director of the programme, said: “The largest burden on the NHS stems from poor diet and food related ill health, costing around £5.8 billion per year.

“The evidence shows that optimised diets play a major role in improving health, with plant- based diets also a key to environmental sustainability.”

The 2017 Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report estimated that dietary changes could prevent more than 50% of contemporary public health problems.

Earlier this year the EAT-Lancet Commission report (Willet et al 2019) 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 from limited animal food/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.

Professor 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.”

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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