The Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre (EDOR) held a one day symposium at the University of Otago, Wellington, on Friday.

Titled ‘From evidence to everyday: Translating nutrition research for a healthy Aotearoa’, the event hosted a broad range of speakers on topics exploring how nutrition research is interpreted by health professionals, the media, social media, policymakers, the community, and ultimately how those interpretations make their way into our everyday food choices.

Otago’s own Professor Jim Mann spoke on “fake news” citing the yet to be studied for long term effects keto or high fat diet, and navigating the minefield of ever-changing “nutrition advice”.

“Nutritional factors and obesity are now a greater determiner of our future diseases burden now more important than smoking. That is why false news needs to be monitored. It’s why we’ve wanted to draw attention to this problem.”

He pointed to the power of the media like health editor for The Guardian Sue Boseley’s advocacy for a sugar tax. He also talked about the incredible popularity of the keto or high fat diet in lieu of any long term studies on its efficacy; or on who could react adversely to the diet.

“The keto diet is something new and exciting…but there are not too many examples of studies into the long term effects of a high fat or keto diet as distinct from a conventional diet.

He says when keto diets are shown to be healthier in comparison to a more conventional diet it is often mis-leading.

“Often the high fat diet will have been compared and shown as preferable to a diet high in unhealthy carbs like lots of potatoes and white bread. While the evidence has changed little – what we do know now is we should eat most of is the right kind of carbohydrates.”

Another of the speakers was Professor Merlin Thomas from the Department of Diabetes at Monash University, Melbourne and author of ‘The Longevity List’. He spoke on the concept of ‘metabolic karma’ and how our diet and lifestyle have a lasting legacy on our health.

We have all heard of karma, he explains.

“It’s the ancient philosophy of cause and effect; how an individual’s actions and intentions can have lasting consequences”

“Metabolic karma is the idea that our diet and lifestyle choices have a lasting effect on our health.”

He uses the example of the Da Qing study from China in the 1980s that saw individuals randomly allocated to an intensive lifestyle intervention or standard care over the course of six years.

“Not only did a better diet and increased exercise benefit them during the study,  30 years later it was still paying them back with better health and a longer life”

Professor Thomas says metabolic karma is a biological process that works on many different levels

“Sometimes it works like a head start, like a yacht in the America’s Cup. Once it gets out in front, it never loses its advantage.

“Sometimes it works like Humpty Dumpty – because there are some cells in our body that, once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. So, all the king’s doctors and all the king’s dieticians can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again”.

He says that one example of this are the cells in the pancreas responsible for making insulin and controlling glucose levels in the bloodstream.

“If these cells are lost because of the toxic effects of excess fat and sugar, it’s one step closer to diabetes – that’s an example of metabolic karma.”

Another way that our past diet and lifestyle can change our future is epigenetics, he says.

“Our genes are the words that tell our body what to do, but epigenetics is a way we control how and when we access certain words (genes).”

“Epigenetic programming explains how genes can be the same, but health outcomes can be very different”.

“Epigenetic programming doesn’t just work inside an individual. Some epigenetic changes may be passed onto children and grandchildren. This may partly explain the lasting health legacy of historical trauma and famine, including Maori and Polynesian populations.

“Our past diet and lifestyle have significantly influenced our epigenetic programming in a way to influence our present health and predisposition to diseases like cancer, diabetes and obesity. Equally, our diet and lifestyle choices today have a real potential to remodel our health in a positive way for our future”

Understanding the mechanics of metabolic karma helps make sense of the importance of people’s diet and lifestyle, says Dr Thomas.

“It gives us a real motivator for making better choices now, and changing the consequences of our previous bad actions with good actions and intentions of today.

“This can be used as an effective motivational tool to encourage people to make better health choices and to adhere to them.”

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