Summer Conference 2021: Nutrition in a changing world

Published online: 9 July 2021

Hosted by the University of Southampton, the 2021 Summer Conference provided a timely overview of the challenges that Nutrition Professionals are facing and will continue to face as we address the climate crisis. Having a huge impact on the way we now work and live, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the crucial need to address nutrition inequalities and immunological health requirements that exist amongst many populations as we shift to a more sustainable way of living. 

President Professor Julie Lovegrove opened the conference along with Dr Christina Vogel from the University of Southampton. Almost 80 years have passed the very first Nutrition Society meeting, where 28 people convened at the Royal Institution in London, chaired by Sir John Boyd Orr. Today, conferences look a lot different but the objective of disseminating nutritional science remains the same. Over 400 delegates from across 23 countries came together virtually to listen to internationally renowned speakers discuss issues and share ideas around the topic ‘Nutrition in a changing world’.

With six symposia, seven plenary lectures, three award lectures and 74 Oral Communications, the scope of the Conference is hard to capture in words, but over 800 tweets and stories using #NSSummer21 gives an indication of the enthusiasm, debate and information sharing across the three days. 

Day one

Professor Alan Dangour, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, gave the opening plenary on the food system and climate change from a food production perspective. Professor Dangour showed how the uneven distribution of rising global temperatures translates into poorer crop yield in certain areas. With over 11 million deaths worldwide being attributed to poor diet quality, it is clear the impact of climate change on food systems will be felt globally. Professor Dangour stressed the  urgent need for transforming the scale of nutrition research to ensure high quality work can be used to write clear and accurate policy briefs that translate science to policy change effectively.

Professor Jennie Macdiarmid, University of Aberdeen, followed by looking at how we can tackle the social barriers that government, industry, and scientists face when giving recommendations to the population. Despite the food system being responsible for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, many people believe changing their diet will not make any difference to reducing these and view plant based diets negatively. The food industry has responded by producing thousands of new vegan and vegetarian products however Professor MacDiarmid highlighted that this has created a  modern vegan diet that is highly processed and not nutritionally balanced. The food system and diets will need closely monitoring to ensure changes are both environmentally sustainable and healthy. 

Taking place in parallel, symposium one focused on changing the world’s production techniques and Symposium two looked at changing our understanding of preconception nutrition. Professor Craig Hutton, University of Southampton, introduced symposium one by showing a model used to predict the socio-economic impacts of agricultural intensification and environmental change in large tropical mega delta systems. Dr Helen Ferrier, National Farmers’ Union, questioned whether novel farming methods could help ensure food supply in a changing world. Dr Ferrier explained that whilst farmers remain heavily invested in supplying safe, nutritious food to consumers, shifts in regulation, global trends, and climate mean current methods need to be reviewed. Professor Johnathon Napier, Rothamsted Research, concluded by showing how transgenic plants engineered to make eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 long chain fatty acids have the potential to achieve similar or greater levels than those found in fish without impacting on marine fish stocks. 

Symposium two looked at changing our current understanding of pre-conception nutrition with Professor Keith Godfrey, University of Southampton, discussing how maternal and paternal nutrition, micronutrient status, can influence the health of offspring. Professor Godfrey showed how educational interventions in adolescence have far reaching potential for population-scale impact. Dr Adam Watkins, University of Nottingham, followed by highlighting the current lack understanding of the paternal programming of offspring, and how animal models enable better understanding of how paternal reproductive fitness impacts offspring development and wellbeing. Professor Shane Norris, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, ended the symposium with an insightful talk on optimising preconception health to minimise intergenerational obesity risk in low- and middle-income countries.

Following an excellent series of Original Communication Sessions, the British Journal of Nutrition Paper of the Year award was awarded to Dr Getachew Arage and colleagues Debre Tavor University, Ethiopia. Dr Arage gave an excellent lecture explaining how prenatal exposure to the Ethiopian Great Famine was associated with a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome and its components among survivors. He suggested these results hold promise and a potential means of preventing adulthood metabolic syndrome is to optimise maternal nutrition during pregnancy. 

Day one closed with an interactive virtual evening drinks reception where delegates were invited to bring along a drink and network online. Hosted by University of Southampton, the networking event showcased two short clips featuring an exhibition of historical nutrition science highlights from Southampton and the UK over the last 80 years.  

Day two

Delegates were invited to an Early Career Researchers Breakfast Symposium, ‘The art of science communication’ with the Nutrition Society’s Honorary Strategic Communications Officer, Dr Carrie Ruxton. Dr Ruxton spoke about her career journey in the field of science communication, noting that unpaid placements played an important role in gaining experience and engaging with the media.  Dr Ruxton shared some tips when posting on social media, best practice for engaging with journalists and avoiding some of the risks by communicating responsibly. 

Professor Philip Calder, University of Southampton, and Dr Christina Vogel introducing Dr Alison Tedstone MBE, Public Health England’s chief Nutritionist who gave the first plenary lecture of day two. Speaking in depth of the UK Government’s progress towards tackling obesity in England, Dr Tedstone took delegates through five years of national policies discussing the introduction of the soft drinks levy in 2016, key actions for sugar reduction in 2018, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed obesity higher on the Government Agenda. Despite reductions in free-sugar intake across all age groups, data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows the average UK diet is still too high in saturated fat, sugar, and salt and too low in fibre, fruit, and vegetables. Worryingly the increase in sale of HFSS food and drink appears to be outweighing any benefit of the sugar reduction and reformulation programmes and the need for a collaborative whole systems approach is more important than ever. 

Symposia three and four were parallel sessions considering the opportunities and challenges to changing food poverty and dietary inequalities and changing nutrition and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Dr Sinead Furey, Ulster University, gave delegates a snapshot into a Northern Ireland shopping basket, noting food is the flexible item in the monthly budget. As 83% of purchases made on price promotion are ‘impulse purchases’, promotion of healthy food items has great potential to shift dietary behaviours. Dr Claire Thompson, University of Hertfordshire, discussed dietary health in the context of poverty and Professor Jacob C Seidell, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, looked at how we can improve the adolescent food environment by engaging suitable stakeholders. 

The Rank Prize Fund Lecture was given by FENS President, Professor Phillip Calder who spoke of the use of marine and plant omega-3 fatty acids for optimal health throughout the life course, noting that dietary intake of EPA and DHA are typically lower than those recommended despite the role they may have in the prevention of heart disease.  

An excellent Postgraduate Symposium allowed four researchers to share their work which considered the risks of meat consumption on dementia risk, as well as how weight loss can be predicted using differential equations.

Day two closed with Dr Mario Siervo, University of Nottingham, being awarded the Silver Medal and giving an excellent closing talk on his research into the ‘Inorganic nitrate reservoir in skeletal muscle: a “glycogen-like” role to control metabolic-vascular coupling’. Dr Siervo showed how differences in response to dietary nitrate in older vs younger individuals may in part be due to variations in the oral or gut microbiome as we age. 

Day three 

The final day began with Emeritus Professor Tim Lang, City University of London, who gave a comprehensive summary of where the UK derives its food. Noting that only 2.7% of total land used is used to produce fruit and vegetables, Professor Lang went on to discuss how this translates into the deficits seen in fruit and vegetable consumption as consumers continue to be nudged towards streams of ‘new’ food products claiming to be ‘eco-healthy’ but are highly processed. 

The Theme Highlights session followed where the current Society Theme Leads each selected talks that covered the current Cellular and Molecular Nutrition, Whole Body Metabolism and Public Health Nutrition Themes. The Theme Leads chaired this session noting that it will be the last one in this format as the Theme structure has been reviewed and increased to four Themes. Find out more about the new Themes. 

The final parallel symposia considered the potential for changing immune function through nutrition, alongside how methods being used in nutrition science are changing. Focusing on new research platforms FoodDB and BetterBasket that have been developed at Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, Dr Richard Harrington discussed their potential in evaluating food-based public health policy, and monitoring the complex point-of-purchase interventions that until now had not been possible. 

Professor Tim Key, University of Oxford, then closed his final plenary talk on the long-term health effects of plant-based diets. Whilst the data on long-term health remains sparse due to the small number of vegans in existing prospective studies, the evidence suggests that those following a vegan diet have a lower risk of diabetes and ischaemic heart disease but may be at an increased risk of stroke. Professor Key added that there is a crucial need for more research in large populations of vegans, with long follow-ups to gain an accurate understanding of the long-term health impacts of plant-based diets.

Professor Julie Lovegrove closed the conference thanking the local organising team for putting together such an engaging online event, as well as speakers and delegates for their invaluable contributions to the panel discussions throughout. The Society would also like to thank the University of Southampton for hosting the conference, as well as Nutrium, Oatly, Yakult UK Ltd, Dietary Assessment Ltd, Clasado Biosciences, and American Pistachio Growers 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. Invited speaker reviews and abstracts will be published in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society in due course. 

SAVE THE DATE: The 2022 Summer Conference 12-15 July Sheffield Hallam University. Theme: Food and Nutrition: pathways to a sustainable future

Despite not being able to take place in person, some delegates took advantage of the Society grant which enabled small groups to gather to watch together. Below is a selection of photos and conversations shared on Twitter across the three days.