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.

Nutrition and Cancer

Diet is the most significant contributory factor associated with cancer, ahead of smoking, alcohol and family history. At least one-third of annual cancer deaths in the U.S. are due to dietary factors.

Nutrition, Genes and Heart Disease

By exploring the relationship between our genes, the way they are expressed, and our metabolism, we are discovering how these factors with nutrition, interact to determine our risk of cardiovascular disease. Can our diets predict or prevent heart disease?

Nutrition and Diabetes

Using the latest technologies, our scientists are working to improve the tools available for early diagnosis, more accurate prognosis and discovery of treatments for diabetes and other diseases.

Nutrition and Birth Defects

A mother’s diet while pregnant may change the way genes are expressed in the child, having a tremendous impact on his or her health. Consuming certain nutrients during pregnancy can significantly reduce birth defects and enhance a baby’s brain development.

Nutrition, Memory and Brain Development

NRI scientists are exploring how specific nutrients can improve brain function. They are finding out how fatty acids like fish oil and flax seed oil may enhance the memory and attention of infants, while properties in blueberries may improve the memory and cognitive abilities of aging adults.

Nutrition and Alcohol Use

Up to 5% of children in the U.S. may suffer from cognitive and behavioral problems caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. Our Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) experts are identifying the nutritional factors that place mothers at risk for having babies with FASD with the goal of dramatically decreasing their numbers.

Nutrition and Obesity

Two-thirds of Americas are overweight or obese, a factor contributing to a variety of increased health risks, including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. As we use new technologies and state-of-the-art equipment to unravel the relationship between diet, genetics and metabolism, our discoveries will help address the global increase in obesity and these related diseases.

Nutrition, Heredity and the Environment

Environmental factors can affect how nutrients are used in the body, leading to increased risk of disease for an individual and possibly her or his offspring. But some nutrients can be used to decrease the risk of disease associated with exposures to harmful environmental factors.

Nutrition and Fertility

Could a common genetic variation in men cause abnormal sperm function? Perhaps a treatment with a dietary supplement called betaine could correct this problem. Researchers are studying this now.

Nutrition and Muscle Function

Nutrition researchers want to find out why some people get sore after exercise more easily than others. We already know how small genetic variations can make a big difference in muscle response. Now we’re studying if some people need more of some important nutrients for better muscle response and if not getting that extra amount makes muscles a little more vulnerable.

Nutrition and Liver Disease

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a common disorder, affecting about 1 in 3 people in the general population and up to 96% of obese individuals. In many cases NAFLD does not cause serious side effects, but in some individuals it progresses to scarring or hardening of the liver, liver failure, and cancer. NRI research is exploring the role of genetic variation, diet and choline metabolism on NAFLD and obesity in diverse populations.

What is Nutrigenomics?

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.

What is Metabolomics?

The simultaneous measurement of thousands of chemicals in blood or urine that more completely describe our metabolism. Read More.

What is Dietary Intake Assessment?

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!