The NRI’s Research Goals:
The Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) studies why people’s metabolism and nutrient requirements differ from person to person. As scientists, physicians, and healthcare practitioners better understand nutritional individuality, they will be able to enhance human health, improve brain development, and more effectively treat diseases like obesity, cancer, and diabetes.
The NRI studies nutritional individuality by conducting research in nutrigenomics and metabolomics. Nutrigenomics is the study of how nutrition changes the way genes function and how genes change our nutrient requirements. Metabolomics is the simultaneous measurement of thousands of chemicals—in either blood or urine—that make up an individual’s metabolism.
Because most approaches to nutrition consider only the average person, nutrigenomics and metabolomics stand out because they customize nutrient requirements specific to an individual. The NRI’s research replaces the previous one-size-fits-all approach to studying nutrition with methods that study individual differences in people’s DNA and metabolism.
By identifying characteristics that predispose individuals to increased requirements for specific nutrients that are known to be associated with brain development and function, protection against cancer, and maintenance of normal body weight, the NRI’s research will allow people to customize their diets in order to maximize wellness and reduce their risk of disease.
Using this new understanding of human metabolic individuality we aim to develop highly targeted solutions that include clinical and community-based interventions with the goal of optimizing brain development and function, as well as preventing cancer, obesity, and the many problems associated with obesity (e.g., diabetes).
Nutrigenomics is the study of how nutrition changes how our genes work and how genes change our nutrient requirements.
Diet can modify the switches built into DNA that turn genes on and off. Our research shows how diet during pregnancy can work in this way to change how brain develops.
Genes can also change our nutrient requirements. More than 500,000 gene variations exist that we can inherit from our ancestors. Each of us has, perhaps, 50,000 of them, and some are variations in genes for metabolism. Our research shows how this can predict whether we need more or less of certain important vitamins and nutrients.
The simultaneous measurement of thousands of chemicals in blood or urine that more completely describe our metabolism. Read More.
The new UNC-Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) focuses on using cutting-edge genomic and metabolomic biotechnology to develop innovative approaches to understanding why we are individually different in our metabolism and nutrition needs.
In nutrition we develop diet recommendations by assuming people are average. Some people need more or less of a nutrient optimally, but as a group we are distributed along a bell-shaped curve that describes requirements. Using the average need, we can use math to estimate the spread of needs and say that everyone is protected if we feed an amount of nutrient that covers this spread.
What happens if we are wrong and, though the average requirement is the same, there are genetic or other reasons that subgroups of people are very different in their requirements? Our recommendation would miss the mark for a large number of people. Perhaps this is why nutrition studies so often report conflicting results.
We can identify these different subgroups using modern science – nutrigenomics and metabolomics!