The Covid-19 pandemic didn’t just transform how we work and communicate. It also accelerated the need for more proactive health measures for chronic health problems tied to diet. Such problems have emerged as a top risk factor for coronavirus and people with poor metabolic health accounted for half of Covid-19 hospitalizations in some regions around the world. The resulting high numbers led the authors of a report in The Lancet to issue a call for more resources to tackle metabolic health to avoid needless deaths.
Thankfully, new tools have been developed to offer comprehensive understanding of nutrition. This expertise and technology won’t just help us tackle metabolic health – it could help us finally fully realize the power of plants to improve health and wellness outcomes.
We know that plants are critical for health, but do not fully understand why. Humans have not mapped the breadth of what plants offer, nor have we pinpointed the specific biological mechanisms of action triggered in our bodies when we eat them. This knowledge gap exists at the molecular level, with a need to understand how phytonutrients – tiny plant molecules with anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective and neuroprotective properties – work in our bodies. In fact, the scientific community refers to the vast world of phytonutrients as the “dark matter of nutrition” because less than 1% of these molecules have been catalogued to date. The opportunity to learn more about phytonutrients and further tangibly connect their impact to health is massive.
Technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, are helping researchers learn more about the biological connections between plants and humans. For instance, Brightseed has created a powerful artificial intelligence called Forager™, which coupled with advanced metabolomics instrumentation, systematically identifies unknown plant compounds and predicts their likely roles in human health. Thus far, the technology has predicted beneficial phytonutrients for many important health conditions.
Recently, in collaboration with leading biomedical researchers, Brightseed discovered a powerful phytonutrient with the potential to improve metabolic health. This phytonutrient helps restore proper function of a central metabolic regulator, including maintaining healthy lipid and sugar levels in the bloodstream and key organs such as the liver, whose function is impaired by a poor diet. Brightseed will start clinical studies on this phytonutrient before the end of this year.
The impact of this discovery could be wide reaching and have profound implications for more than two billion people worldwide at elevated risk of chronic metabolic diseases. Elevated levels of fat in the liver (which are directly caused by chronic overeating) afflict between 25% and 30% of the global population. These individuals with fatty liver disease are 57% more likely to die prematurely and much more like to develop other debilitating metabolic diseases, including diabetes. The discovery of this phytonutrient is a glimpse into the positive change deeper nutritional understanding could bring.
The opportunity ahead
Just as 1918 pandemic led to creation of the modern medicine industry, we now are at a similar tipping point with nutrition, on the precipice of developing a much more complete understanding of how plants are connected to human health.
The first step is improving our foundational knowledge. In the U.S., there is a broad-based effort among leading academic, non-profit and industry stakeholders to create a National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) to accelerate nutrition science and uncover the role of human nutrition in improving public health and reducing disease. The NIN, similar to institutes that exist in other countries, can support and incentivize higher-quality, more rigorous nutrition research at the molecular level. This research will provide a stronger foundation for nutrition recommendations and guidelines, which is essential to developing consensus in both the scientific and consumer communities.
The second step is a mindset shift. Modern food and agricultural systems have largely focused on – and solved – the problem of food insufficiency. However, preventable diet-driven chronic diseases have emerged instead. We need to pivot from merely increasing the supply of food to leveraging technologies that can help improve the nutritional quality of what we consume.
Healthier food options can be the center of a new proactive health industry and provide the food industry the opportunity to make important contributions to health and longevity, while benefiting economically from the capture of existing healthcare investment that currently is directed to treating chronic disease. Our current treatment-focused healthcare system is increasingly unaffordable and poorly suited to addressing the needs of individuals at heightened risk of developing chronic diseases that are largely preventable through lifestyle modifications, especially those related to diet.
No changes will be possible without forging new collaborations between public and private entities. Through cooperation we can develop more nutritious options and greatly influence policy change. Partnerships are also how we’ll create a more nourished world and maximize our impact.
For the first time, we have the tools to explore the plant kingdom at the molecular level and answer questions such as “How does what we eat really affect us?” or “How can food become medicine?”
Technology is exponentially improving our understanding of how plants are connected to health. Together, we can goal shift the healthcare model from one squarely focused on treatment of disease to one that promotes health and natural resilience.
This article was first published in World Economic Forum.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
You are reading this because you value good, intelligent and objective journalism. We thank you for your time and your trust.
You also know that the news media is facing an unprecedented crisis. It is likely that you are also hearing of the brutal layoffs and pay-cuts hitting the industry. There are many reasons why the media’s economics is broken. But a big one is that good people are not yet paying enough for good journalism.
We have a newsroom filled with talented young reporters. We also have the country’s most robust editing and fact-checking team, finest news photographers and video professionals. We are building India’s most ambitious and energetic news platform. And have just turned three.
At ThePrint, we invest in quality journalists. We pay them fairly. As you may have noticed, we do not flinch from spending whatever it takes to make sure our reporters reach where the story is.
This comes with a sizable cost. For us to continue bringing quality journalism, we need readers like you to pay for it.
If you think we deserve your support, do join us in this endeavour to strengthen fair, free, courageous and questioning journalism. Please click on the link below. Your support will define ThePrint’s future.