IFIC Foundation Goes to Boston: What We Learned at Nutrition 2018

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The IFIC Foundation’s Ali Webster, PhD, RD, and Alyssa Ardolino, RD, were among the attendees at Nutrition 2018, the American Society for Nutrition’s annual conference. Nutrition 2018 brought together researchers, science communicators, registered dietitians, industry professionals, government employees and journalists to hear about the latest news and scientific developments in nutrition. To say that we learned a lot would be an understatement – some days started at 6:00 a.m. just to fit in all of the sessions! Topics reflected the diversity of the nutrition science field, ranging from the microscopic to large population-level studies. These are the hot topics that stood out to us the most:

The Gut Microbiome

Here at FoodInsight, we write pretty frequently about the gut microbiome, and it’s become a central focus of nutrition research as we continue to learn about how the microbes in our gastrointestinal tract influence our health. Several sessions at Nutrition 2018 were centered on the microbiome, uncovering new findings about everything from its role in obesity to infant growth and development. The “buffering function” of the microbiome was one concept explained to the audience. In our bodies, the gut bacteria do more hard work when we eat raw or fibrous foods that our human enzymes are unable to digest. This unlocks more of the nutrients for our use (and theirs!). On the flipside, less is digested by microbes if our enzymes are able to handle it, which affects the composition and functions of the bacteria. In another session, John Peters of the University of Colorado emphasized that changes in the gut microbiome should not be viewed as a research study endpoint – instead, we need to be more interested in the effects on human health that are caused by the changes.

Development of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs)

Since the process to update the DGAs is set to begin within the next few months, several sessions incorporated discussions of this important public health topic. One session explained the DGAs development process and what to expect for the new addition of DGAs for the birth to 24 months (B-24) age group and pregnant women. Currently on the agenda is trying to figure out how best to convey B-24 recommendations for a population that is first and foremost encouraged to be breastfed from birth until at least 6 months (and potentially longer). Key areas to address in this population include an emphasis on brain development, lowering risk for disease, when and how to start solid and complementary foods and how to build a strong dietary pattern.

Sugars and Low-Calorie Sweeteners

It’s probably no surprise that sugars and low-calorie sweeteners (LCS) were hot topics at a nutrition conference. Specifically, the addition of added sugars to the nutrition facts panel has prompted changes to some foods and drinks, and some speakers highlighted the difficulty in lowering added sugars, including changes in texture and bitterness. When it comes to LCS, speakers stressed that consuming them can’t work miracles – they won’t increase energy expenditure or lower blood glucose. The purpose of LCS is to displace excess calories from sugars, and they will only be helpful if people do not eat additional calories later as compensation. John Peters also cautioned against lumping all LCS together when looking at their health effects, since different sweeteners are metabolized differently.

Nutrition Science is Still Confusing

Several of the sessions addressed topics such as calorie confusion, low calorie sweetener debates, the controversy around sugars and more. It’s enough information to make your head spin — even as a health professional! Though nutrition science is sometimes bewildering, there are many researchers, government officials and communicators hard at work to provide better and clearer information for the public. With that being said, it’s really important to understand that the results of any one nutrition science study are nearly impossible to extrapolate to everyone. So the next time you see a headline that scares you, consider the source, take a deep breath and speak to a healthcare professional if you have questions. We want to help!

Emotion Trumps Science

One of the most intriguing sessions at the conference was the Emotion Trumps Science presentation, which provided insights into our current media landscape and how understanding our audience can lead us to produce more relevant content for the consumer. As our society rapidly changes and areas of interest vary from one day to the next, the perception of conflicting information often causes consumers to “choose the safest option when in doubt.” Therefore, it’s important that the consumer trusts the provider of information. As nutrition communicators, we must consider a multitude of factors, including context, credibility and appropriateness of messengers and channels. Finally, linking the science to action is crucial. We used to assume that the research would simply speak for itself, but that’s no longer the case. We have to cultivate an emotional connection to what’s discovered by science.

ASN’s Nutrition 2018 conference was overflowing with up-to-the-minute information on nutrition’s role in health, and our time in Boston seemed to fly by. There’s no doubt that we’ll be talking about the impact of this year’s new research and public health guidelines to our audience (that’s you!) in the weeks and months to come, and we can’t wait for Nutrition 2019!

This blog post was written by Ali Webster, PhD, RD, and Alyssa Ardolino, RD.