Member-led short conference 2021: Plant-rich dietary patterns and health - Overview

Published online: 13 October 2021

Day One 

Symposium One 

Attracting over 370 delegates from across 34 countries, The Society’s second Member-led short conference of 2021 took place online on 4 – 5 October. 

Professor Jayne Woodside, Queen’s University Belfast, opened the conference with a warm welcome before speakers took delegates through the latest research findings exploring plant-rich dietary patterns and health.

Dr Qiu Sun, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, set the scene for symposium one as he discussed the correlation between healthful plant-based diets and reduced risk of cardiometabolic conditions. Emphasis was placed on the role of the human gut microbiome and its production of bioactive metabolites in shaping some of the beneficial effects seen. Professor Baukje de Roos, University of Aberdeen, discussed further by displaying the relationship that an individual’s body composition may have on the effectiveness of health interventions involving plant-based bioactives. Both speakers highlighted the current challenges public health nutritionists face when setting dietary guidelines for a population suggesting a personalised, precision approach may be beneficial. Whilst showing promise in being able to improve the dietary habits of individuals, personalised nutrition does not come without challenges. 

Using results from a study comparing self-reported citrus intake with urinary proline betaine levels, Professor Lorraine Brennan, University College Dublin, highlighted the challenges to using self-reported food intake data. She showed how metabolomics can lead to the identification of food intake biomarkers and can be used to effectively measure dietary intake once sufficiently validated. 


Symposium Two 

Chaired by Dr Qiu Sun, symposium two began with Professor Jayne Woodside. Using results from six randomised controlled trials, Professor Woodside explored the correlation between reduced cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors and fruit and vegetable intake. Despite the protective effect of increased fruit and vegetable consumption commonly suggested by observational studies, a pooled analysis from six human intervention trials conducted at Queen’s University Belfast did not support this. Although Professor Woodside noted the limitations of self-reported dietary assessment methods. 

Professor Eric RimmHarvard TH Chan School of Public Health, then gave an equally engaging discussion around quantity of fruit and vegetable intake versus the variety of fruit and vegetables in a diet. Professor Rimm discussed that fruit and vegetables each have very specific biological properties, with some containing much more potent bioactive compounds than others. Therefore, from a public health perspective, advising individuals to eat better quality, and a greater variety of fruit and vegetables, may be more effective than simply increasing consumption of one type of fruit or vegetable. 

Professor Frank Hu, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, ended the final session of the day with a clear message that not all plant-based diets are healthy. By comparing the amino acid content of plant-based food versus animal products, Professor Hu revealed that animal protein sources typically contain more essential amino acids, however, plant-based foods contain more non-essential amino acids. Professor Hu noted that, despite the greater presence of essential amino acids in animal products, this does not mean that they are ‘better’ to consume. Emphasis was also placed upon reduced morbidity rates in diets free of red meat as well as having a smaller carbon footprint. 

Day 2 

Symposium Three 

Professor Jayne Woodside welcomed everybody back again forday two alongside Professor Lorraine Brennan, University College Dublin, before Dr Mirjam Heinen, World Health Organisation, commenced symposium three. Exploring the eating habits of children and adolescents, with a focus on fruit and vegetable intake, Dr Heinen took delegates through the results of dietary surveys conducted in the WHO European Region. Food Frequency Questionnaires revealed that most children and adolescents are not meeting current nutritional recommendations, and there were large country-country variances. Dr Heinen stressed the need for further work to create healthier food environments and reinforce health system to promote more plant-based diets. 

Dr Claire McEvoy, Queen’s University Belfast, followed with a discussion around the relationship between plant-rich diets and cognitive health during ageing. Dr McEvoy revealed that plant-rich diets have been linked to a reduced risk of cognitive decline, a 30% lower risk for functional decline, and overall better health-related quality of life. Dr McEvoy also suggested that the combination of a plant-rich diet and other lifestyle factors may result in further slowing of cognitive decline. 

To conclude symposium three, Dr Carmen Piernas-Sanchez, University of Oxford, explored the association between dietary patterns and CVD, focusing on food items, rather than individual nutrients. Using information gathered from the UK Biobank. Dr Piernas-Sanchez showed that those under 60 years old living with overweight or obesity had a higher risk of CVD than those over 60 years old at a healthy weight.


Symposium Four

After a short break, Dr Claire McEvoy welcomed attendees back to commence symposium four. Dr Pauline Scheelbeek, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, begun the session by discussing the environmental aspects of plant-based diets as well as the resilience of plant-based food systems. Using greenhouse gas emissions as a marker, Dr Scheelbeek compared the environmental impact of a vegan diet versus an ovolactovegetarian diet. The results showed lower gas emissions were generated from plant-based diets as well as less land usage. Professor Jonathon Rushton, University of Liverpool, followed with an insightful overview of both plant and animal-based dietary patterns as well as the whole agri-food system. Professor Rushton emphasised that replacing processed meat products with processed plant-based alternatives may not be the perfect solution given their variable protein and micronutrient content. 

The conference finished with a talk from Dr Hannah Ensaff, University of Leeds, who examined food insecurity and its relationship to fruit and vegetable intake. Food insecurity is a growing global issue with an estimated 2.6 million people in living in UK households that contain at least one person with moderate or severe food insecurity. Dr Ensaff highlighted the adverse relationship between food insecurity and fruit and vegetable intake as well as overall diet quality. She highlighted the urgent need for strategies such as provision of fruit and vegetable vouchers to mitigate this and improve dietary patterns in these households. 

Delegates had the ability to engage in discussion via Twitter, and those wishing to continue in the debate and discussion can do so using the hashtag #NSMemberConference21and #NSMemberConference.


Written by Lauren Kelly