Q&A with FENS 2019 plenary speaker, Professor Lauren Lissner

Professor Lauren Lissner

Professor Lauren Lissner, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, will be one of the plenary speakers at the 13th European Nutrition Conference (FENS 2019) this coming October. Professor Lissner is a professor in Epidemiology and a former president of the Swedish Association for the Study of Obesity. She will be speaking on the third day of the conference, 17 October, on "The food environment: insights on lessons learned and future challenges." Ahead of the conference, the Society asked Professor Lissner about her research, thoughts on obesity epidimiology, and what she will be covering in her talk.

With a background in epidemiology and public health, what first led you to study nutritional science?

After college, I spent several years working in Italy as a contracted author at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). There, I realized that I lacked research training in nutritional epidemiology, and my idea at the time was to do doctoral research on undernutrition in lower income countries. But moving in the 1980’s from Europe back to the US in the midst of an the obesity epidemic, I re-focused my research accordingly. After working on experimental feeding studies with fat-manipulated diets and epidemiological studies on weight cycling, I moved to Sweden.

With such extensive research experience in the epidemiology of obesity, how have you seen the epidemiological research focus evolve over the years?

The epidemiological research focus has definitely evolved, in nutritional and obesity areas. On one hand, the emergence of register-based research in Sweden and elsewhere has made it possible to design powerful epidemiological studies on health aspects of obesity that were previously not possible. On the other, a healthy scepticism of certain aspects of nutritional epidemiology is growing, for instance when the diet assessment methodology is questionable.

Why do you think it is important to consider malnutrition in an obese world?

The terminology here is evolving as well. Many of us in the nutrition field have agree that obesity can be considered a subcategory of malnutrition, as described by WHO. This is in contrast to a lay perception of malnutrition being a synonym for undernutrition, and a potential source of confusion. One good reason to consider malnutrition a relevant concept in an obese world is poor nutritional quality of diets contributing to excessive weight gain.

Some of your recent research has explored the relationship between socioeconomic status and Body Mass Index. Why do you think socioeconomic status is important to consider as a determinant of health in the context of obesity?

Part of monitoring the obesity epidemic involves more than just observing whether rates are increasing, decreasing, or levelling off over time. A critical dimension here is the socioeconomic gap, and whether inequalities are widening, narrowing, or remaining constant. Characterizing trends over time from a health inequalities perspective is informs our understanding of the global nutrition transition. Moreover, a better understanding of vulnerable groups is needed to forward prevention science.

Finally, your talk at FENS will focus on the food environment. What role do you think the food environment plays in both obesity and malnutrition?

It is an honor to be invited to talk about the food environment (a formidably broad topic) and highlight some future perspectives for public health science. Despite advances in the genomics of obesity, the food environment remains a key trigger of the epidemic and its influence can be described on multiple levels. In my talk, I will try to highlight a few of these that have been part of my research and some newer ones for the next generation of obesity researchers.   

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