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September 28, 2016

THE NIH and Nutrition

by Anne Paddock

When people hear the letters “NIH” they often think of the National Institutes of Health which is not one center but 28 separate institutes and centers responsible for biomedical and health-related research. The Office of the Director oversees the 27 institutes/centers, sets policies, and coordinates activities. Nestled within the United States Department of Health and Human Services (the cabinet level department at the federal level whose motto is “Improving the health, safety, and well-being of America”), NIH is the primary agency for health related issues in this country:

  1. Cancer
  2. Allergy and Infectious Diseases
  3. Dental and Craniofacial Research
  4. Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
  5. Heart, Lung, and Blood
  6. Mental Health
  7. Neurological Disorders and Stroke
  8. Library of Science
  9. Child Health and Human Development
  10. General Medical Sciences
  11. Eye
  12. Environmental Health Sciences
  13. Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  14. Drug Abuse
  15. Aging
  16. Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
  17. Nursing Research
  18. Deafness and Other Communication Disorders
  19. Human Genome Research
  20. Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering
  21. Minority Health and Health Disparities
  22. Scientific Review
  23. Clinical Center
  24. Advancing Translational Sciences
  25. Information Technology
  26. International Center
  27. Complementary and Integrative Health

The list seems very comprehensive with all the major causes of death (i.e. heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, kidney disease, lung disease, etc) covered but there is one category of study missing that affects every disease and illness on the list and that is Nutrition. Why doesn’t the NIH have an institute or center to cover nutritional research?

The NIH may say they have nutrition covered in their Nutrition Obesity Research Centers Program (NORC)  in the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases but the effects of nutrition are not limited to diabetes,  digestive, and kidney diseases. In fact, nutrition greatly impacts heart health, blood sugar and the rest of the human body, especially the vascular system.

Or, the NIH may say that nutrition is the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) domain, since this agency is responsible for developing and executing federal laws related to farming, agriculture, forestry, and food. But, that’s not true either, because the USDA “aims to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers, promote agricultural trade and production, work to assure food safety, protect natural resources, foster rural communities and end hunger in the United States and internationally.”  The words “nutritional research” are simply absent.

But, within the USDA there is the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services which promotes dietary guidelines. Set by who? The Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP and also under the USDA) whose mission is  “to improve the health and well-being of Americans by establishing national dietary guidelines based on the best science available. CNPP promotes dietary guidance by linking scientific research to the nutritional needs of the American public through the function of USDA’s Nutrition Evidence Library, which it created and manages.” So, if the peer-reviewed scientific studies show that a whole grain plant-based diet low in added sugar and saturated fat is better for our health, then why doesn’t MyPlate – the new USDA’s food icon – reflect the current research?USDA_MyPlate

Could the answer lie with special interests and specifically the livestock, dairy, and egg industry? Or, the pharmaceutical and medical communities? Or, does the answer lie with our culture and the social aspects of eating? Probably all of the above.

The answer may be that if the NIH had an Institute or Center for Nutrition Research, then they would have to face several truths that are currently relegated to bottom tier status after medication, surgery, our food culture, and politics. The American diet consisting of too much processed food laden with empty calories, too much sugar, cholesterol,  saturated fat, and too many animal products is at odds with the results of peer-reviewed medical research that shows we should be eating more fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Instead of dealing with the symptoms of chronic disease, the NIH would have to deal with the causes of chronic illness and that would be confrontational, embarrassing, politically undesirable, difficult and in conflict with the system in place. Simply stated, the research supporting the benefits of a plant-based diet is no match for a culture deeply entrenched with lifestyle practices (supported by special interest groups) that are making us sick and using the pharmaceutical and medical industries to treat the effects rather than the causes of chronic illness. But, treating the causes – which are primarily lifestyle choices –  would be better for our health, the environment, and the billions of animals we slaughter annually.

So, what can you do? Contact the NIH by clicking here or sending an e-mail to: NIHinfo@od.nih.gov to voice your support to establish an Institute for Nutritional Research.

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