Irish Section Conference 2022 overview

Published online: 23 June 2022

Professor Julie Lovegrove

Organised and hosted by the University of Cork, the 2022 Irish Section Conference took place between 15 – 17 June. The programme focused on a series of interlinked symposia, reflecting on the contribution of nutrition science to human health, from historical advances through to the current challenges and future perspectives.

Professor Sarah Culloty, University College Cork (UCC), Professor Mairead Kiely, UCC, Professor Julie Lovegrove, Reading, and Dr Alice Lucey, UCC, welcomed 175 delegates to the conference from across the UK and Ireland, and as far away as Iran and USA. With 245 tweets using #NSIRISH22, the conference sparked much debate and information sharing.

Symposium One focused on the historical contributions of nutrition science to human health. Professor Helene McNulty, Ulster University, opened by discussing the health effects of folic acid fortification in food and highlighted the challenges of translating evidence into effective policy. Despite over 30 years of conclusive evidence showing folic acid supplementation of mothers in early pregnancy protects against neural tube defects (NTDs) in babies, the UK Government only announced mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid in September 2021. Professor McNulty stressed that a similar policy is urgently needed in Ireland where rates of NTDs are amongst the highest worldwide. Professor Michael K. Georgieff, University of Minnesota, followed with a fascinating talk exploring how the long-term effects of neonatal iron deficiency play a role in brain structure and function. Professor Georgieff showed that there are critical periods of brain structure development that are nutrient- sensitive. Failure to construct the brain normally in these critical periods can result in permanent alterations to both primary regions affected by the nutrient deficiency but can also effect any neural circuit that depends on the integrity of these primary areas. Professor Michael Zimmerman, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, then spoke of the impact of iodisation programmes on global public health. There has been a significant global expansion in salt iodisation over the past 30 years with over 88% of the global population using iodised salt. Despite this, there remain imbalances, with 21 countries still deficient and 13 consuming excess amounts. Professor Zimmerman stressed the need for continued support of these programmes to reach the remaining deficient countries. Professor John Mathers concluded the symposia by taking a closer look at dietary fibre and health. It is now clear that dietary fibre-rich diets are associated with better gut health and with reduced risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, yet only 9% of adults in the UK consume the recommended amount. Professor Mathers highlighted the revolutionary approaches now being used to study the gut microbiome, which focus on effects of fibre-derived metabolites and changes in immune function.

Notably, one of the biggest challenges faced by nutrition professionals is the ability to accurately analyse dietary intake. Recognising this, the NSTA hosted a lunchtime session with Nutritics, providing delegates with information on best-practice methodologies for dietary assessment.







An afternoon of 67 original communications followed before delegates headed to the Glucksman Gallery to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the British Journal of Nutrition (BJN). This special event combined a static exhibition from the BJN archives with presentations from past Editors-in Chief of the journal, reflecting on their memories and experiences. A student social event also took place later in the evening. 

Day Two began with the Postgraduate Symposium. Elaine Hillesheim, University College Dublin, started with a presentation explaining how metabotyping can be used to identify sub-groups within a population that may benefit from having more personalised dietary advice. Aoibhin Moore Heslin, University College Dublin, followed with a talk looking at the current gaps and opportunities for research around adolescent nutrition and health. Helena Scully, Trinity College Dublin, then discussed the current vitamin D status in Ireland before Lauren Devine, Ulster University, concluded with a summary of the key factors influencing adolescents’ dietary choices in the school setting, discussing the most effective interventions to promote the selection of healthier options.

A short break gave delegates a chance to network before the winner of the Julie Wallace Award, Dr Caoileann Murphy, Trinity College Dublin delivered her lecture ‘Nutrition strategies to counteract age-related sarcopenia: from old players to new kids on the block’. Dr Murphy discussed the evidence around nutrition interventions for sarcopenia to date, noting how interindividual variability makes it difficult to tease out causal results, before highlighting how the application of personalised nutrition to sarcopenia presents an exciting new field of research.

33 original communications followed, showcasing a variety of emerging research before the Irish Section AGM took place. Professor Alison Gallagher, Ulster University, was appointed Chair of the Irish Section, and Dr Emma Feeney appointed as Secretary.

Symposium Two took delegates through the current challenges that nutrition research is facing. Professor Jayne Woodside, Queen’s University Belfast highlighted the challenges around obtaining causal evidence whereby increased fruit and vegetable intake is associated with lower disease risk, as studies to date have largely been observational. Professor Philip Calder, Univeristy of Southamption followed with an engaging talk on the challenges of gaining sufficient ‘burden of proof’ in nutrition science. Due to the complexity of foods and dietary patterns, and inter-individual response variations, inconsistent results are often obtained. Translation of these results into real life scenarios can be difficult and misunderstood. With the 21st century bringing new challenges around recognition of food systems, socio-economic and environmental processes involved in sustainable production and consumption of food, different approaches to funding and research is required. Professor Adrian Martinea, Queen Mary Univeristy of London, reviewed the evidence around the role of vitamin D in the prevention and treatment of COVID-19, highlighting that strong evidence for any protective effect is still lacking. Dr Majella O’Keeffe, University College Cork, concluded with a hard-hitting lecture on obesity as one of the biggest public health challenges we now face. Professor O’keeffe stressed that the current approaches to tackling this wicked public health issue need to change and highlighted how systems-based interventions for obesity prevention offer the gear shift needed to drive sustainable and meaningful change. Day Three began with the third and final symposium. Professor Helen Roche, University College Dublin explored how nutrigenomics and systems biology approaches have advanced the precision nutrition paradigm. Using mechanistic studies in mice, Professor Roche showed how certain ‘metabotypes’ can be used to stratify risk of disease and identify more precise therapeutic interventions to enhance disease prevention. Professor Jose Ordovas, Tufts Univeristy, then showed how large studies such as the Personalised Response to Dietary Composition Trial (PREDICT) have allowed for more effective prevention of diseases associated with ageing, especially cardiovascular disease through artificial intelligence and machine learning. Professor Jens Walter, University College Cork, followed with an insightful talk on precision modulation and restoration of the human gut microbiome through dietary intervention. Professor Walter showed, using human intervention studies how characteristics of the gut microbiome may be able to be restored using a high-fibre, non-industrialised-type diet. The final symposium concluded with a talk by Professor Christine Williams, Univeristy of Reading who looked at the evidence underpinning nutrition policy. Professor Williams highlighted how the advances in study design, new methodologies and statistical approaches have been instrumental in allowing causal effects to be drawn from observed diet-disease relationships. However, the lack of ability to measure habitual diet reliably continues to present significant challenges due to factors such as: eating out of home, changing population diets over time, underreporting and frequency of compositional changes in manufactured foods. Professor Williams stressed the need for a more systematic approach, including clear criteria for selection of studies based on quality, rigour and relevance, to enable discrimination of those studies that can usefully address current diet and health questions from those that cannot.

The Society would like to thank the Irish Section for hosting the conference, along with Yakult, National Dairy Council, Nutritics, Food Standards Agency, Atlantia Clinical Trials, Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Cork Convention Bureau, Fresenius Kabi and Randox for supporting the conference.  The Society would also like to thank delegates for their valuable contributions during the discussions, raising key questions and opening debate.