The impact of nutrition on both physical and mental health has gained much interest in recent years. Emerging studies are finding more strong connections between diet, gut health and the microbiome, and various diseases (both physical and mental). Part of the research into these connections is being undertaken by the field of nutritional biochemistry which investigates the mechanisms which underly these interactions between diet and disease.
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The biochemistry of nutrition recruits a multitude of scientific disciplines, including biology, chemistry and physics, to gain a deeper understanding of aspects such as cell function and metabolism, clinical nutrition, macronutrients and energy, nutritional genomics and other factors that contribute to the interplay between diet and disease.
The primary goal of research in nutritional biochemistry is to establish the optimal dietary and nutritional requirements of both healthy individuals and those inflicted with illness. The field also seeks to develop strategies to reduce the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs.
Here, we discuss the importance of deepening our knowledge of the biochemistry of nutrition, what the field studies, and what important discoveries have been made.
Why study the biochemistry of nutrition?: nutrition and disease
Studying the biochemistry of nutrition can uncover vital information about the role diet plays in the establishment, development, and prognosis of physical diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke - illnesses that have all been linked in some way to diet and nutrition.
In addition, a growing body of evidence is beginning to uncover significant links between nutrition and the development and management of numerous diagnosable mental health illnesses and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, dementia, and schizophrenia.
This research has established the field of nutritional psychiatry which explores how certain nutrients impact mental health disorders, in order to develop new therapies based on nutritional supplements as either integrated or alternative treatments for psychological illness.
Therefore, studying the biochemistry of nutrition has a significant real-world impact. It has the potential to greatly influence the future of preventative and therapeutic strategies for mental and physical illness.
What does nutritional biochemistry study?
The list of what is studied by nutritional biochemistry is extensive and can be considered to be almost infinite. Anything related to how food and nutrition operate on a biological, chemical, and physical level are considered by the discipline.
Research explores how nutrition works on a cellular level and it also investigates the complex interactions and pathways that nutritional compounds influence. Further to this, it seeks to understand the links between these functions and interactions at the cellular and pathway level, and the various health outcomes that are associated with nutrition and diet as well as exploring other potential links that have not yet been established.
To summarize what nutritional biochemistry studies, the list (while not exhaustive) would include analysis of dietary intake, cell function and metabolism, clinical nutrition, establishing and monitoring nutritional requirements, macronutrients and energy, nutritional genomics, and nutritional psychiatry.
What has been discovered by nutritional biochemistry?
Already, much has been discovered in the field of nutritional biochemistry. Here, we will touch on a few key findings, however, this is not representative of the wide scope of research that has been carried out in recent decades.
To begin with, as touched on above, research into the biochemistry of nutrition has helped to establish the related field of nutritional psychiatry. Research in this sector has already revealed much about how diet can be manipulated to help both prevent and manage various mental health issues.
For example, recent research has demonstrated that the Mediterranean diet is associated with better overall mental health than “unhealthy” eating patterns, such as those associated with the Western diet. More recently, evidence has shown that a variation of the Mediterranean diet, the ‘green’ Mediterranean diet, is more strongly associated with better mental than the classic Mediterranean diet. This evidence is helping to pave the way to understanding the intricacies between diet and mental illness.
Nutritional biochemistry has also helped to reveal facts about how nutrients influence the growth, development, and function of cells and tissues. Studies have shown how nutrients impact cellular homeostasis. Studies have also shown how stress responses interact with this link and how it can trigger the disease. This avenue of research may be particularly significant in developing new preventative strategies for various physical illnesses.
Nutritional biochemistry has also produced a great deal of important evidence regarding the role of diet in the development of cancer. Thus far, research has supported the idea that genetics play a vital role in the establishment of cancer. Further to this, studies have shown that genetic factors, including DNA instability and gene alterations, are influenced by nutrition. In addition, there is some evidence to suggest that aberrant DNA methylation, a key contributing factor to carcinogenesis, is also influenced by nutrition.
Overall, nutritional biochemistry is helping to uncover the relationship between diet and various functions of the body, helping to elucidate how what we eat is associated with disease. The field is very wide, and there is much more to be discovered. Over the coming years, we can expect many more influential findings emerging from nutritional biochemistry.
- Carreiro, A., Dhillon, J., Gordon, S., Higgins, K., Jacobs, A., McArthur, B., Redan, B., Rivera, R., Schmidt, L. and Mattes, R., 2016. The Macronutrients, Appetite, and Energy Intake. Annual Review of Nutrition, 36(1), pp.73-103. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4960974/
- Elsamanoudy, A., Mohamed Neamat-Allah, M., Hisham Mohammad, F., Hassanien, M. and Nada, H., 2016. The role of nutrition related genes and nutrigenetics in understanding the pathogenesis of cancer. Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastructure, 4(3), p.115. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213879X16000183
- Firth, J., Gangwisch, J., Borsini, A., Wootton, R. and Mayer, E., 2020. Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing?. BMJ, p.m2382. https://www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m2382