Irish Section and Post Graduate Conference 2021: Nutrition Health and Ageing -Translating Science into Practice

Published online: 25 June 2021

For the first time, the Nutrition Society’s Postgraduate and Irish Section Nutrition Society Conference merged as a joint event hosted by the University of Limerick. The three-day virtual conference provided an overview of current issues in relation to specific chronic diseases associated with ageing populations including obesity, metabolic health, cognitive function, and sarcopenia.

Scientific Organisers, Dr Eibhlís O’Connor, Dr Alexandra Cremona, Dr Anne Griffin, Dr Audrey Tierney, Ms Ber Norris and Dr Catherine Norton welcomed 247 delegates to the conference from across the UK, Ireland and Europe, and as far away China, Indonesia, and Singapore.

Day one

The first day was dedicated to the postgraduate conference. PhD student Peter Cronin gave a warm welcome before Laura Kirwan and Professor Michael Gibney chaired a series of careers talks that gave students guidance on the next steps to take to pursue a career in nutrition.

“A fantastic start to the Irish Section conference. It was an honour to chair at this event and all talks, and Thesis in Three presentations were brilliant. Well done to Eibhlis, Peter and all members of the Irish Section Committee for organising such a successful event and I look forward to the presentations taking place over the remainder of the conference.” Lauren Devine

The Postgraduate Conference is an excellent chance for early career researchers to learn how they can best shape their studies and work experience to get them their dream job. Dr Alexandra Cremona, University of Limerick, began by focusing on the route to Academia, highlighting that any opportunities to broaden your experience as a researcher plays a crucial role in any academic position. Dr Yvonne Lenighan, Nestle, then spoke about her route to Industry, noting that whilst a PhD offers great project management experience, Nutrition Society conferences are also a fantastic opportunity to improve communication skills through oral communications and poster presentations which are valuable transferable skills for any career. The afternoon sessions focused on how to publish your research, best practices for using social media to promote your published research and looking after your mental during your PhD with Dr Hannah McCormack, Rugby Players Ireland, reminded delegates that a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint!

The highlight of the day was the Thesis in Three presentations where students who had entered the competition were challenged to present their research to delegates in just three minutes. Students distilled their niche subjects in short concise slides before taking questions from the floor – a great opportunity for speakers to present and for those listening to gain insight into the variety of research currently taking place.  

"What a great day. The talks were all really interesting. I think the best part was the Thesis in Three competition, all the students were fantastic. It was an absolute pleasure to chair. It's a shame we can't meet and socialise in person. Back to normality next year and looking forward to the postgraduate conference in 2022." Peter Cronin 

Despite the students missing out on the valuable social and networking events, conversations continued throughout the day on social media, with #NSIRISH21 trending on Twitter during the Irish Section Student Representatives ‘Twitter-Takeover’. 

Day two 

The morning began with an excellent first symposium looking at the current nutritional issues influencing metabolic health. Professor Leanne Hodson, Oxford University, opened with a lecture looking at the disruption of metabolism in obesity, focusing on the regulation of glucose and lipid metabolism in response to insulin signalling. Professor Hodson told the audience that Insulin signalling directly alters intra- and extra-hepatic metabolism, and that regulation of hepatic fatty acid and glucose metabolism significantly differs between lean and obese individuals. Professor Paul O’Toole, University College Cork, then discussed the impact of gut microbiota on metabolic health regulation. With the gut microbiome being a key environmental risk factor for complex diseases such as obesity, Professor O’Toole highlighted how the gut microbiome interacts with satiety through the production of microbial-mediated gut hormones, noting that these can either be beneficial through the production of desirable metabolic signals or may have an undesirable effect on the microbiome by oppressing blood glucose insulin secretion. 

Professor Edith Feskens, University Wageningen, used the PREDIMED study and subsequent NU-AGE project to highlight evidence suggesting the adherence to the Mediterranean diet can improve metabolic health, before Professor Francis Stephens, University of Exeter, concluded the symposium with an insightful presentation on skeletal muscle metabolism. Professor Feskens highlighted that increased fatty acid availability and physical in-activity can elevate the branched chain amino acids in skeletal muscle, leading to insulin resistance of muscle glucose uptake and are strong predictors of the development of type 2 diabetes. 

An engaging panel discussion followed before the winner of the Julie Wallace Award, Dr Elaine McCarthy, University College Cork, delivered her lecture on iron deficiency during the first 1000 days of life. Dr McCarthy focused on the less well-known risks of deficiency including gestational diabetes mellitus and intrauterine growth restriction, and also shed light on recent evidence to suggest maternal obesity, smoking and delivery by Caesarean section further increases risk of iron deficiency. 

A break in the programme allowed delegates the chance to view some of the excellent Original Communications showcasing a variety of emerging research before symposium two began. Professor Anne-Marie Minihane, University of East Anglia, talked us through some of the nutritional approaches that might prevent or delay the progression of neuropathology and brain vascular dysfunction with Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) emerging as particularly promising. Professor Minihane stressed the need for long term randomised controlled trials using robust outcomes were needed to make clear causal inferences that can be used to inform policy. 

Dr Michael Tieland, Amsterdam University, gave the audience an overview of the dietary and exercise strategies to counteract sarcopenia, noting that as many as many as 42% of older adults in western society have difficulties performing daily living activities with up to 90% experiencing limited physical performance. Professor Kevin Cashman, University College Cork, discussed the nutritional considerations for these populations considering the current climate crisis and Sustainable Development Goals as we move towards 2050. Whilst diets rich in fruit, vegetables and wholegrains with minimal red meat will support planetary health, there may be potential risks in terms of nutrition for bone health as diets shift away from dairy consumption and consumption of plant-based protein sources increases. 

Dr Fiona Lithander, University of Bristol, closed the symposium with a talk on the interactions between nutrition and Parkinson’s disease. Whilst there is no specific diet for people with Parkinson’s, research has shown that maintaining good nutritional status can play a role in improving some symptoms. Day two closed following a second panel discussion where delegates continued to ask engaging questions around the intervention strategies that could be used to address health risks associated with sarcopenia. 

Day three

The final day started with an insightful breakfast symposium delivered by Dr Alistair Monteyne, University of Exeter, on behalf of Quorn Foods. Dr Monteyne discussed the role of mycoprotein as a non-animal protein alternative to support the maintenance of muscle mass with ageing. The Postgraduate symposium followed with four excellent talks considering the benefits of plant-based diets, the eating behaviours of Irish teenagers, strategies for addressing the gap in nutritional care of women before and during pregnancy, and how the lipid composition of fortified foods could be manipulated to increase vitamin D absorption.

The final symposium of the conference looked at the strategies to improve nutrient status, the current opinions around these and their implications for nutrition policy. Professor Ivan Perry opened with a detailed overview of the strategic approaches for reformulation proposed in Ireland, discussing the importance of strong collaboration between government and industry at all levels – including the retail and out of home sector. Ms Oonagh Lyons, Ulster University, Ireland then introduced the role of technology in being able to overcome the major challenges in dietary assessment such as low participation rates and respondent bias in self-reported data. Ms Lyons advised that advanced technology has provided us with new opportunities for dietary assessment in important areas relating to data entry platforms, portion size measurement, food composition databases, and barcoding of nutrient and ingredient data. 

Professor Clare Corish, University College Dublin, Ireland gave the last talk of the conference, focusing on the outcomes of the Irish Health Research Board funded project – Oral Nutritional Supplement Prescribing (ONSPres). Professor Corish highlighted the lack of nutrition knowledge that exists amongst health care professionals (HCPs) and showed how provision of resources through ONSPres modules was effective in improving the ability of HCPs to screen for malnutrition.

Dr Eibhlis O'Connor, University of Limerick, Ireland closed the conference and announced the winners of the best poster presentations and the Thesis in Three. Congratulations to Lauren Devine, Hannah Benson, Ellen Geen and Julia McClelland for ther excellent posters, and to Grainne Whelehan, Laura Kirwan and Holly Neill for their fantastic thesis in three presentations.  The Society would like to thank the Irish Section for hosting an excellent conference, and the National Dairy Council, Quorn Nutrition, Yakult, Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, Health Research Board, University of Limerick and RANDOX for supporting the conference. 

All papers for the conference and the abstracts will be published in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society.