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Too much fat, too much sugar, too much – the ingredients for obesity and diet-related disease are well known. What the head knows does not necessarily go into the belly. What we have learned and experienced has left its pattern on our diet, which is difficult to change. Researchers at the competence cluster NutriAct are nevertheless trying to change it, because they know that people who eat properly in their middle years have a better chance of aging healthily.
"If we want to break the wrong diet pattern, we first need to understand how it developed. What is genetic, and what is influenced by upbringing? What influence does social change have?” asks Tilman Grune. The Potsdam nutritionist is thinking not only of current trends due to changes in the work environment or everyday family life but also of earlier events like the upheaval after 1989. NutriAct considers longer periods in order to describe long-term effects of wrong or right nutritional behavior. “Many diseases in old age, such as type II diabetes or hypertension are caused in the past,” says Grune and explains, “If we want to reach the last stage of life healthily, the years between 50 and 70 are crucial.” But those who are still healthy at this age do not feel psychological pressure to eat differently and exercise more. We could really use a diet prophylaxis, so to speak, like the dentist gives us for our teeth.
Tilman Grune is Scientific Director of the German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbrücke (DIfE) and Professor of Molecular Toxicology at the University of Potsdam. All threads of the joint project NutriAct converge in his office. He directs the federally funded “Competence Cluster Nutrition”, a project that unites over 50 partners from 32 research institutions and companies in Berlin and Brandenburg working on these nutritional strategies that support healthy aging.
No scientific database exists yet that would allow us to assess the positive effects of a particular diet or the potential hazards of only a somewhat suitable one. This is the central project that the Institute of Nutrition (IEW) at the University of Potsdam contributes to the competence cluster. “It deals with the identification of biomarkers that detect the intake of certain foods and ingredients and allow conclusions to be drawn as to whether these substances have a preventative or harmful effect on health,” explains coordinator Tanja Schwerdtle, Professor of Food Chemistry at the IEW. “These biomarkers enable us to detect, among other things, if people actually ate what they claim to have eaten.” It is an incorruptible instrument used in a large-scale intervention study with 500 men and women over 50. Over three years, some of the subjects receive an age-appropriate diet as recommended by the German Society for Nutrition. The results of this group will be compared with the values of another group who gets a diet emphasizing certain fatty acids, fibers, and plant proteins with a positive metabolic effect. “This is a mammoth project that we could only shoulder with the participation of PhD students and students,” says Schwerdtle, underlining that the University of Potsdam has taken on the training of young scientists for the competence cluster, together with the Potsdam Graduate School.
For the identification of biomarkers, Schwerdtle is collaborating with scientists of the IEW, DIfE, the Charité hospital, the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology, and with industrial partners, because the results of their joint research are expected to not only form the basis for age-based dietary recommendations but also to help develop age-appropriate foods. They want to develop products that contain all essential nutrients, vegetable plant proteins, and vegetable fat and, on top of that, are tasty and visually appealing. “Perhaps people would enjoy eating something healthy if it is packaged like a sausage or looks like a meatball,” Grune says with a smile, adding that it was necessary to build on people’s habits to be able to change anything. He sees major development opportunities for the regional food industry in this field. It could make a name for itself throughout Germany beyond asparagus cultivation.
The targeted customers are people over 50. “An age at which many reorient themselves,” as Grune is familiar with from personal experience. “The children leave home; there is more time for cooking, for enjoying things. People become aware of the finite nature of their life and want to consciously use their time and stay active and healthy.”
Nevertheless, people’s diet nowadays is often problematic with unhealthy food choices as well as unhealthy eating and drinking habits. It seems that there are some obstacles preventing them from following a balanced diet and other health behaviors that are essential for an active and healthy aging. A person is usually not eating alone – eating habits are always a social phenomenon. For this reason, Petra Warschburger, Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Potsdam, is examining family-related and individual factors that influence adult dietary habits. For this, participants of the EPIC study – a longitudinal DIfE study – and their family members are interviewed. The researcher is also interested in their willingness to change their dietary behavior. Additionally, further psychological tests with a small sample size should measure – among other things – self-control abilities. These findings could be incorporated into internet-based platforms to support a healthy dietary behavior. The aim is to tailor individual diet recommendations by taking into account the personal situation, physical activity, chronic illness or food intolerances in order to provide an optimal dietary mix.
The joint project „NutriAct“ (Nutritional Intervention for Healthy Aging: Food Patterns, Behavior, and Products) is one of four “Competence Centers of Nutrition Research” with 5.6 million € of funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In this network, the University of Potsdam performs central tasks and coordinates five subprojects, works on five of the 20 work packages, and takes part in the network management and training of young researchers.
Tilman Grune studied Medical Biochemistry in Moscow. Since 2014, he has been Scientific Director of the German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbrücke (DIfE) and Professor of Molecular Toxicology at the University of Potsdam.
Deutsches Institut für Ernährungsforschung Rehbrücke
Arthur-Scheunert-Allee 114–116 | 14558 Nuthetal
Tanja Schwerdtle studied Food Chemistry at the University of Karlsruhe, now Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). Since 2013, she has been Professor of Food Chemistry at the University of Potsdam.
Institut für Ernährungswissenschaft
Arthur-Scheunert-Allee 114–116 | 14558 Nuthetal
Petra Warschburger studied psychology in Trier. At the University of Potsdam, she is Professor of Counseling Psychology and chair of the Education and Counseling Center for Patients (PTZ).
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 24–25 | 14476 Potsdam
Text: Antje Horn-Conrad
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Agnetha Lang
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