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  • Writer's pictureIrene cisma díaz

Vis medicatrix naturae, is nature the ultimate healer?

Updated: May 2

Food and nutrition have been studied for centuries, it is believed that the precursors were the School of Kos following Hippocrates medical theory. However, modern nutrition was not conceived until 1926, when the first vitamin was isolated. Nowadays nutrition must face a double burden: a combination of undernutrition and non-communicable diseases. The recent advances have been in line to this double problem, and they have shown that food and diet patterns, rather than nutrient focused metrics, may explain many effects on diseases or malnutrition. The new emerging priorities for research vary between higher and lower income countries.

On one hand, the first group of countries focuses are to include an optimal dietary composition to reduce weight gain, obesity and prevent diabetes; the interactions between prebiotics and probiotics, fermented foods and gut microbiota; the effects of fatty acids, flavonoids, and other bioactives; and personalised nutrition.

On the other hand, the second group requires investigation to understand the optimal dietary patterns to tackle maternal health, child development, infection risk, as well as non-communicable diseases.

What both populations have in common is the unbalance in their diets as well as a rise on the antimicrobial resistance. That is why the recent advancements, understanding the role of the human microbiome is spiking as key moderator in the interactions between food and our body, and for instance, on the overall health and human well-being.

Therefore, research needs to go in parallel with main health trends, patients-consumer expectations and industry innovation. Conclusions about diet and health should be based on scientific evidence, such as controlled interventions, mechanistic studies, prospective observational studies or clinical trials. Many medical institutions and agencies (e.g. EFSA & FDA) have stated in many occasions that double-blind randomised placebo-controlled clinical trials are the golden standard on the spectrum. Since food and beverages are marketed globally, agencies are requesting to include a heterogenous population on future clinical studies to satisfy the diversity in terms of health conditions and diets across countries.

Consumers of functional foods and beverages are also showing a better disposition for those products that prove their health benefits. Trust is a must for functional ingredients and some studies have proven that consumers tend to be less sensitive to price when a health benefit has been scientifically substantiated.

From the industry point of view, a highly competitive market has incentivized companies to innovate on their offering. They look to provide health value through foods, while still confirming these benefits require rigour according to the Good Clinical Practices (GCP) when conducting food trials.

At this point, a question should be laid down: is the current nutrition approach taking into consideration human well-being in an integrated way? Looking back to Hellenistic times and their medicinal approach, patient health should be restored by balancing the humours through the diet. Their vision could seem insubstantial however, if we think about the recent research around the gut-brain axis and the possible relationship between diet and mental health, it may make sense.


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