Dieticians keep coming back to nuggets rustled up by a pioneer

December 1, 2006

Our monthly guide to some of the conferences taking place around the world

Geoff Watts samples the offerings at a gathering that will honour a trailblazer in the study of nutrition and health.

Few partnerships in science endure for 60 years. One that did took off in 1933 when a postgraduate chemist in her late twenties began a training course on dietetics at King's College Hospital in London. A preparatory phase of the course had to be spent in the hospital kitchens learning about mass catering. During this time, she bumped into a young doctor who popped in to put joints of meat in one of the ovens. He was studying the effect of cooking on foods.

Having introduced herself, the chemist was invited to the doctor's laboratory, where she promptly criticised some of his initial findings. Far from ejecting her, he invited her to join the project, and even got her a grant from the Medical Research Council. His name was Robert McCance, hers was Elsie Widdowson, and their research collaboration lasted for the rest of their lives. The reference book they published in 1940, The Chemical Composition of Foods , is now in its sixth edition and remains a nutritionists' bible.

The Nutrition Society will mark the centenary of Widdowson's birth by dedicating its winter meeting to her memory. In her career, she investigated a variety of topics from salt deficiency to the effects of malnutrition. At the beginning of the Second World War, she and McCance devised a study of rationing in which members of her research group were the principal guinea pigs. The paradoxically health-enhancing effects of self-denial were influential in shaping wartime food policy.

The theme of the society's meeting is "Nutrition in early life - new horizons in a new century". The topic would have delighted Widdowson. Her interest in childhood issues went back at least as far as postwar Germany and nutritional studies she carried out in orphanages.

Whether she would have regarded the horizons under review as entirely "new"

is more debatable. As her biographer, Margaret Ashwell, points out, in the 1950s and 1960s Widdowson was studying the effect of underfeeding on young animals. They recovered once back on a normal diet, but they never achieved normal size and weight.

The principle that early nutrition affects later life will be represented in a session of the meeting that Ashwell will chair. Two of the speakers are affiliated to the Early Nutrition Programming Project (Earnest). This five-year venture brings together scientists from 38 institutions in 16 European countries. The European Union is picking up the greater part of its e16.5 million (£11.2 million) cost.

Earnest's aims are ambitious. The project ranges from the laboratory to the clinic and the home and uses randomised controlled trials, prospective observational studies, animal experiments and molecular techniques.

Researchers hope to compile a complete picture of the importance of early nutrition.

Mary Fewtrell of the Childhood Nutrition Research Centre at University College London will outline major components of the programme. These include prospective studies of European populations to examine diet in pregnancy and early life. Other efforts will be devoted to following up people who took part in previous studies of nutritional intervention during pregnancy and childhood; the aim is to establish the effects of such interventions over a longer period.

As another Earnest researcher, Michael Symonds of the Centre for Reproduction and Early Life at Nottingham University, notes in a review in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care , there are suggestions that early development may be a factor in as much as 50 per cent of adult disease. In his presentation, Symonds will summarise work that is beginning to uncover novel metabolic pathways underpinning these effects. He will also discuss some ways in which the bodies of offspring may respond peripherally and centrally - and for good or ill - to nutritional changes during pregnancy.

Will early nutrition programming turn out to be the big idea it appears to be? Delegates will have an opportunity to make up their minds and to pay tribute to Widdowson. She kept some of the pigs on which she conducted studies in her garden. An extreme example of taking your work home that many delegates will doubtless admire.

The Nutrition Society winter meeting December 11-13, Churchill College, Cambridge. www.nutritionsociety.org .

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments