New centre for researching nutrition

The HSRC’s Centre for the Study of the Social and Environmental Determinants of Nutrition, launched on 15 March by the health minister, is ideally placed to become an important tool to undertake research, leading to policy recommendations that could improve the nutritional status of the population, explains DEMETRÉ LABADARIOS. 

Nutrition issues, perhaps more than any other, affect all of us on a daily basis and range from the common and overwhelming desire to remain healthy to the daily fear of not having adequate amounts of food to eat.

Nutrition at the molecular level

Nutrition as a science has experienced tremendous growth over the recent two decades, primarily at the molecular level. The better understanding of the role and impact of inflammation (ranging from healing to chronic disease to aging) together with the documented role and the impact of nutrients on the genome (the so-called personalised nutrition) have opened immense possibilities in the field of well-being, disease prevention and disease management.

However, it is increasingly being realised that better knowledge and understanding at the molecular level on its own is rather inadequate in understanding the underlying causes of, for instance, the increasing prevalence of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases of lifestyle.

What is perhaps of greater interest, and complexity, is the inadequate success, or rather major failure, in our interventions to combat the ills of under- and over-nutrition, which do actually coexist in a given household in South Africa and other developing countries.

social and environmental aspects

This tremendous growth in studies in nutrition, however, has largely defocused the equally crucial importance of the social and environmental determinants, social mechanisms and social consequences of food and nutrition. The understanding of the mechanisms that link social determinants to nutrition outcomes, rather than outputs, therefore, is in urgent need of innovative investigation, which can only be achieved by the extensive integration of the molecular and social aspects of nutrition.

Unless such an approach is developed and more extensively investigated, we won't be effective in our interventions or understand the mechanism(s) of distal determinants of nutritional status such as education, income, gender and ethnicity. For example, better education is associated with a decreased risk of undernutrition (stunting) but an increased risk of obesity. This is where the Centre will focus its research, namely on the full spectrum of data on nutrition-related diseases and conditions, and their social and environmental determinants.

The Centre's plans

The Centre is still in the early stages of development and planning, but the task lying ahead is well defined. It will focus on social and environmental determinants of nutritional status and behaviour, particularly food insecurity and malnutrition (both over and under nutrition). Furthermore, one of the objectives is to network and undertake relevant research with other African countries and to build strong links with the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

In this regard, the Centre held a workshop in March where the African Taskforce on Obesity Research (AfriTOR) was created. Five African countries sent delegates to attend the workshop and specific projects have already been highlighted for joint research. Dr Mciza, who did her PhD research on obesity in adolescents and their mothers, will monitor the taskforce.

Professor Demetré Labadarios is the executive director of Population Health, Health Systems and Innovation.