Professor Dianne Ford
Professor of Molecular Nutrition, Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences, Newcastle University

You may well have seen our Ask the Expert article ‘Are We What We Eat?’ with Professor Dianne Ford, where she explained a little about how what we eat affects our health and our appearance. We’ve caught back up with her to ask a little more about her research, and how nutrition affects how we age!

What does your own research focus on? How does this relate to human health?

My research is on the molecular side of dietary components and how they interact with the cell. One major area of interest is zinc, but my own research into this is rather far-removed from its benefits in health, and is more focussed on its exact effects on individual cells.
Other work I do is closer to diet and health, working broadly in the area of dietary restriction. Here, we look at how particular proteins affect modifications made to the DNA, and investigate the effects of these changes.

Does nutrition affect how we age? What should we be eating to keep us looking young?

Dietary restriction has been shown to significantly extend life span in yeasts and some animals, but the extension of life isn’t necessarily the same thing as reversing ageing. Just as banning cars in areas with traffic accident rates would extend the average life span in that area, but would not reverse ageing. It’s worth noting that these life-extending properties have not yet been conclusively shown in humans.

Resveratrol is a compound with which has shown some age-opposing effects, but these effects aren’t things like giving us young and smooth skin. There is evidence that resveratrol that may mimic effects of dietary restriction, and it is therefore a keen area of research focus.

How does researching and studying nutrition differ to studying drugs? How can you start to find foods/food components that are ‘good’ for us?

There isn’t the same rigour and budget in nutritional studies than in say research to cure conditions and the answers we’re looking for are less defined than in a clinical trial of a drug.

You might start by looking at some epidemiological studies, looking at trends in population’s dietary practices and comparing them to disease trends in those populations. Effects of nutrition can be small, and therefore only measurable if you’re studying very large populations. Using such data, it’s been estimated that 30% of all cancers are modifiable by diet, so potentially that 30% of cancers could have been avoided by altered diet.

How do you test the effects of nutrition and dietary components?

You can often use things identified by population studies to start testing compounds on cells to look at their biological effects. However, these effects do not always translate to the body as a whole though, and so animal studies are also used to try and better simulate the effects of molecules on the organism as a whole.

It would be very difficult to dive straight into human studies without previously testing on cells and animals, mainly because of the expense and ethical issues associated with such studies. Recording people’s diets can be a real challenge – people sometimes fib about what they’ve been eating, or may start to change their eating habits after reviewing what it is they’re actually eating.

How has research into the properties of particular foods changed people’s lives?

Undoubtedly knowledge has affected people. People go on diets because they know eating too much is bad for them. A big part of our lives is how we eat and what we eat, and therefore how society views food is effectively life changing. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables for example is widely positively looked upon, and therefore I suppose one view would be that adaptation to that dietary pattern could be considered life changing in itself, regardless of the potential anti-cancer benefits and other effects.

Other than this cultural side, this is a question that you can’t really answer – some people will say that particular foods have had certain effects for them, but it’s difficult to completely link the effect to the food supplement they’ve taken or the dietary change they have made.

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