A shop assistant fills the shelves with dairy products SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images

Putting Nutrition Back on the Menu

Centuries of scientific research have focused on ensuring that enough food is produced for growing populations. But with obesity and diet-related diseases on the rise, and hunger and malnutrition affecting more people than ever before, scientists are focusing not only on how to feed the planet, but on what to feed it.

BRASILIA – Human nutrition is of increasing importance to science. Of course, centuries of scientific research have been devoted to ensuring that enough food is produced for growing populations. But with obesity and diet-related diseases on the rise, and hunger and malnutrition affecting more people than ever before, scientists are focusing not only on how to feed the planet, but on what to feed it.

As a biologist, I look at foods and diets from an evolutionary perspective. Put simply, foods evolve in concert with the organisms that consume them. Consider the humble apple. By itself, the fruit’s fructose isn’t particularly healthy, and when eaten in large quantities, it increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other non-communicable diseases. But when the fruit’s sugars are digested along with its fibers, absorption of fructose in the body slows, and the fruit is metabolically healthier. Through this mechanism, the apple – like most fruits and vegetables – becomes a more perfect food.

The same logic applies to our diets. Throughout history, foods have been created and altered by combining flavors, colors, and nutritional values, while diets have matured differently within families, cultures, and communities. But, for the most part, our ancestors chose foods for their health outcomes. Unhealthy diets were generally short-lived because of the poor results.

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