How Tufts Is Convening a Call for a National Nutrition Research ‘Moonshot’

The Friedman School and other institutes have outlined specific options to strengthen and accelerate federal nutrition research to transform lives, reduce health disparities, and reduce health-care spending
Watch a video about the call for greater nutrition research. Video: Jandro Cisneros
July 20, 2020

Share

How can we improve public health, advance healthy equity, free up federal dollars, and strengthen our military and economy in one fell swoop?

According to an expert group of former government leaders, former federal agency staff, and top scientists, the answer is to revolutionize research into one of the most basic parts of our daily lives: food.

Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Federal Nutrition Research Advisory Group includes Dean Dariush Mozaffarian of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, former Senator Tom Harkin, Bipartisan Policy Center chief medical advisor Anand Parekh, and a number of scientists, scholars, and former National Institutes of Health staffers.

In a white paper released today, the council evaluates the health, equity, security, and sustainability burdens that diet-related disease is placing on our nation, and identifies opportunities for federal nutrition research to rise to meet them.

The council calls for a national conversation on ways to strengthen federal nutrition research, which could include better coordinating the efforts of its many players; stepping up funding for research, which has plateaued or declined in recent decades; and creating a new authority, which could take the form of a new Office of the National Director of Food and Nutrition or a new National Institute of Nutrition, according to the white paper.

Mozaffarian spoke with Tufts Now about how better and improved coordination of federal nutrition research could transform and revitalize our nation, our most vulnerable populations, and our everyday lives.

Tufts Now: Why do we need this initiative right now?

Dariush Mozaffarian: Over the past fifty years, obesity and diabetes rates have skyrocketed. Health-care spending has gone from 5 percent to almost 30 percent of the federal budget and the average state budget, with most of that going toward diet-related diseases. We spend about $11,000 per year on health care for every man, woman, and child in the U.S.or about $44,000 per year for an average family of four. About 40,000 Americans die every month from these diseases.

This burden of suffering and economic loss is borne largely by our most vulnerable populations: low-income, rural, and minority populations, experience the highest rates of diet-related disease and food insecurity, and the most limited access to nutritious foods and information on good dietary habits. 

Our country is drowning in the social and economic costs of our food and nutrition challenges, and they’re only getting worse. As a cardiologist and public health expert whose goal is to help as many people as possible live a healthy life, I find this disheartening. But it’s also incredibly energizing, because we can actually fix these challenge—and better science is the foundation to do that.

Strengthening and coordinating federal nutrition research will help us craft better public guidance and policy, leverage our investments in federal nutrition programs, improve health equity, and treat and prevent diet-related diseases, which will substantially reduce health-care spending and free up hundreds of billions of dollars for other national priorities. Our kids will learn better in school and go on to healthier, more productive lives. Our seniors will be active and energetic throughout their later lives. Nutrition-related innovations will drive new businesses and jobs and help address the dire economic challenges that rural farming communities face.

I think there are enormous opportunities ahead of us, which promise an incredible return on investment. But we don’t have another fifty years to learn all we need to know. We need to start now.

How would this initiative positively impact our preparedness for and resilience in the face of public-health crises like COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a fast pandemic on top of a slow pandemic—one of diet-related poor metabolic health including type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other conditions. These diet-related conditions greatly increase the risk of poor COVID-19 outcomes, including hospitalization and death. Seniors in our country also often suffer from “hidden hunger”—a range of specific nutrient deficiencies—and experience higher rates of death from COVID.

The effects go both ways. The dramatic disruptions COVID has had on our food systems and supply chains has resulted in more food insecurity and greater disparities, and we don’t have the translational research to monitor and address this in real time.

If we had a metabolically healthy population, all the evidence suggests COVID would have been much less severe, and that we potentially would not have had to shut down the economy, shutter businesses and schools, and trigger many losses of jobs. A healthier food system, catalyzed by strong science, would have nourished us, reduced metabolic diseases, and saved us trillions of dollars in economic losses, let alone lost lives.

COVID-19 will be with us for some time, and it’s also not going to be the last pandemic. So many key questions need to be answered. For example, how do food and nutrition relate to better immunity, and what natural compounds in foods can help treat COVID? How quickly might improved metabolic health reduce risk from COVID-19? How do food insecurity and health disparities intersect with poor nutrition, poor metabolic health, and COVID-19? And more.

COVID-19 has highlighted the fragmentation and burdens of our food system like never before, and we need strong science to create a resilient population in the face of this and future pandemics.

Who is involved in this effort?

As one of the nation’s leading institutions on nutrition science and policy, the Friedman School is proud to be a part of this national conversation. Dr. Jean Mayer founded the school more than forty years ago on the notion of combining strong science with action. Our mission is to generate trusted science, future leaders, and public impact—this initiative combines all of that.

The Friedman School has convened an impressive group of experts and organizations around this effort. The coauthors of our white paper, released today, represent a broad range of expertise that highlights the depth and importance of this effort. We are also bringing together major advocacy, professional, and academic organizations to support this call for strengthening and accelerating federal nutrition research, which were announced at a virtual event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center on July 15.

Additionally, earlier this year, nearly forty major businesses, start-up companies, and nonprofit organizations in the Food & Nutrition Innovation Council at the Friedman School put out a consensus statement [PDF] calling for a national strategy and evaluation to coordinate and strengthen federal nutrition research.

One more party is involved: you. Food and nutrition touch almost every aspect of our lives, and they represent one of the most fundamental opportunities we have to improve our lives and ability to withstand acute crises like COVID-19.

Everyone stands to benefit from clearing up confusion around public guidance on nutrition; better addressing diet-related diseases; making healthier foods less expensive and more accessible for all; and lowering health-care spending so we don’t bankrupt the government and businesses and free up critical resources for other national priorities.  

To read the white paper, or to learn more or support this effort, visit https://sites.tufts.edu/nutritionadvisory/ or contact federalnutritionresearch@tufts.edu.