The Nutritional Epidemiology Programme at the MRC Epidemiology Unit is building evidence on the relationship between diet and the risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity. By engaging with national and international policy bodies, as well as with the media, the team is contributing to public health understanding and policy.
According to the Chief Executive of Public Health England (PHE), “Type 2 diabetes is one of the biggest health challenges of our time.” Type 2 diabetes (T2D) is a condition in which blood sugar levels become elevated because either the pancreas produces insufficient quantities of insulin or cells don’t react to insulin in the way they should. It carries a risk of serious health complications ranging from heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease, to blindness and premature death. In England alone there are 2.6 million individuals living with T2D, and around 200,000 of us are diagnosed each year. Obesity, which currently impacts around a quarter of adults in the UK, is a risk factor for T2D, and itself also presents a growing health and economic challenge.
Poor diet is a key risk factor in the development of T2D and obesity. However, nutritional science, and the effects of food on health, have been areas in which evidence has often been conflicting or unclear. Combined with many other political, cultural and economic issues, this has led to public confusion about diet, and controversy over dietary guidance and policy.
The MRC Epidemiology Unit, based at the University of Cambridge, studies the genetic, developmental and environmental determinants of obesity, T2D and related metabolic disorders, and contributes to their prevention. Dr Nita Forouhi leads the Nutritional Epidemiology programme in the Unit, which works to better understand the relationship between diet, nutrition and the risk of T2D, obesity and related disorders. For example, the team has shown links between sugar-sweetened beverages and the risk of T2D. They have also found that we should assess foods, and not focus only on macronutrients, when considering their impact on T2D. Using their findings, Dr Forouhi and her colleagues have engaged with national and international policymakers and media to help shape the way that policy and decision-makers and the public understand and act upon these issues.