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Diet, lifestyle and medication: in search of a healthy mix

4 December 2017 • 3 min reading time

There are two common approaches to health – the food industry focuses on prevention, while the pharmaceutical industry focuses on cure. Both branches of industry want to influence the factors that determine health. But is our grasp of these underlying mechanisms good enough for us to use them to influence our health? And what is the right combination of diet, lifestyle and medication for any given patient?

I recently discovered the answer to the above questions while reading an article in HP/De Tijd. The article was based on an interview with Rosanne Hertzberger (a microbiologist), Prof. Martijn Katan (Emeritus Professor of Nutrition), and Kris Verburgh (physician and bestselling author). The topics covered included healthy eating, lifestyle and health. The interviewees each brought their own expertise to bear in discussing the benefits and drawbacks of research, diet and medicine, and of extrapolating research data to individual people.

Too little research

The interview became a discussion, which got pretty gruelling from time to time. The three participants were not entirely in agreement with one another. For me, the discussion confirmed that we already know a great deal about diet, medicines and health in general. But it also clearly showed that we still know far too little about the relationships between bodily processes that keep people healthy and help them recover from disease. Cause? There are still too few multi-pronged studies into how substances in our diet and in medicines influence processes in our body.

Liver diseases triggered by diabetes and obesity

Unlike the wider research community, however, TNO is devoting considerable research efforts to these processes and to the relationship between diet and medicine. Our areas of focus include finding more effective ways of keeping people healthy, promoting a healthy lifestyle, and identifying interventions which can have a positive effect on health. One of the key focus areas in our research efforts is metabolic health. More specifically, we are concentrating on diabetes and obesity-related disorders. The growing numbers of patients with diabetes and obesity has produced a surge in the number of patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which can also lead to inflammation of the liver (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis or NASH). Liver diseases such as NAFLD and NASH are caused by diabetes and obesity, and can lead to fibrosis (an excess of fibrous connective tissue, ed.) or even cirrhosis of the liver (where there is so much scar tissue that the liver is irreparably damaged, ed.), ultimately resulting in death.

“We still know far too little about the relationships between bodily processes that keep people healthy and help them recover from disease”

Personalized dietary advice

TNO recently launched ProLiver, a unique, long-term programme involving companies from the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry. The goal of this cooperative venture is to improve our understanding of the causative factors behind NAFLD and NASH, and of how these factors can be influenced by nutrition and/or medication. What really sets this programme apart is that, rather than focusing purely on processes in the liver, it will also explore the influence of other organs – such as fat – on the development of these diseases. ProLiver will also be investigating microbial status (the composition of the bacteria in the body). It is hoped that this research will lead to new, personalized dietary advice and therapies.

Could we eliminate NAFLD and NASH completely?

You may be wondering whether this research could actually find a way to stop these diseases developing in the first place. Sadly, that is not the case. That is because there are so many other aspects involved, such as hormone regulation. Thus, another research project is already in the pipeline. That research programme will focus on interactions between processes in the brain, and on signals that are subsequently passed to the organs and returned.

“TNO’s ProLiver, a cooperative programme involving companies from the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry, will lead to new, personalized nutritional advice and therapies”

Just use your common sense

In time, we will be able to advise individuals about the type of lifestyle, diet and/or pharmaceutical intervention that is best for them, in terms of staying healthy or of making a speedy recovery from illness. But what can we do in the meantime? Well, we can use our common sense, by eating a healthy and varied diet. Similarly, we should also take any recommended medication – if it has been prescribed – to bring disrupted processes back into balance. Last, but not least, we must endeavour to enjoy each and every day to the full.

Author

Robert Ostendorf

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