Edible Advice

468S10a-f2.2 Farooq Ahmed in Nature:

Too much tea can treble cancer risk in women'. 'Tea could cut risk of ovarian cancer'. Just two examples of the frequent contradictory newspaper headlines that confuse the public about the health benefits — or risks — of food and confound genuine nutrition-related research.

For some diseases such as diabetes the link with food is subtle. “Although we know that dietary factors are related to the risk of diabetes, there are a lot of inconsistencies between studies in terms of what precise micronutrients or macronutrients associate with the disease. We're quite limited in terms of the data,” explains Nick Wareham, head of the epidemiology unit at the UK's Medical Research Council.

Using new tools and methodologies, ambitious projects are underway to make up this shortfall. One such effort, which Wareham coordinates, is InterAct — a multinational study to define how diet and lifestyle influence risk of type 2 diabetes. This disorder of blood glucose regulation is a growing problem in Europe, afflicting nearly 40% of the population at some point in their lifetime. InterAct estimates that the diabetes accounts for as much as 10% of health care costs in Europe.

Through endeavours such as InterAct, researchers are starting to expose the complex interplay of genetics, diet and disease, and bring order to the confusing array of nutritional information.

InterAct began in 2006 as part of the European Community's sixth Framework Programme. It has a budget of euro10 million and involves more than 12,000 patients recently diagnosed with diabetes across 10 countries — nine in Europe plus India. Such a broad cohort is important. “Sometimes variation within a country is not so great,” says Wareham. “International efforts give you heterogeneity in the lifestyles of patients, especially in the diet, and that's a major advantage.” This diversity provides scientists with more variables to study as they attempt to untangle what factors are responsible for causing disease.