Overall Research Theme - Nutrition in the life cycle

The choices we make during the life cycle has consequences in later life, ie the quality and  duration (quantity) of life.  CEN approaches the enhancing of the quality of life by investigating an important environmental factor, namely nutrition and food throughout the entire life-cycle.

This is done by not only addressing the consequences of undernutrition and overnutrition and certain diseases of lifestyle, but also by improving overall quality of life through innovative research and leadership programmes. This is done by investigating the relationships between nutritional exposures and health outcomes. In addition modulating and influencing factors, are examined in cross-sectional and prospective epidemiological studies, intervention and clinical trials, and in mechanistic molecular and genetic experimental studies. Problems such as roles of individual nutrients, the impact of urbanisation, obesity, inactivity, undernutrition, HIV/AIDS, poverty, nutrient requirements, and nutrition education of the public are addressed. Results of this work have been used in formulating nutrition policy in South Africa and have focused the world’s attention on the nutritional situation in rural Africa.

Projects include nutrition and health relationships in the multi-funded, international “PURE” study, the WHO funded “Food-based dietary guideline” study and the DOH funded nutrient profiling model project.

The group has expertise in the following areas:

Body composition and health

Obesity is a major public health problem in South Africa and contributes significantly to our overall burden of disease.  In this area of study we investigate the determinants of obesity and other patterns of body composition and relate it to risk factors for chronic disease in adults and children in an attempt to understand the drivers and prevent the potential consequences of this pandemic. Together with the focus on maternal and childhood malnutrition this forms a strategic focus where cutting edge work is performed with major public health impact.

Maternal, infant and child nutrition

Factors affecting the nutritional status and health of South African mothers and children are examined in epidemiological, clinical and intervention studies. The focus is not only on underdevelopment and morbidity, but also on the link between maternal malnutrition and risk of non-communicable diseases in their offspring. Currently our research focuses on assessing dietary intake and nutritional status of pregnant women, and determining associations thereof with birth outcomes, maternal and offspring health.  The influences of environmental factors like mycotoxins on child development are also investigated.

Fatty acids & lipids

Health consequences of dietary lipids go well beyond their role as energy sources and should be seen as key nutrients that affect early growth and development, as well as how the body responds to nutrition-related chronic and infectious diseases. Our research focuses on the effects of essential fatty acids on cognition, child behaviour and immune function studied in randomised controlled trials and animal models. Additionally, we are interested in potential interactions of fatty acids with micronutrients on various outcomes.

Micronutrient malnutrition

Micronutrient malnutrition remains an important public health concern in South Africa and the Department  of  Health  has  set  its  alleviation  as  a  national  priority. Our research in this area focuses on studying the role of micronutrients in early childhood development and immune function, and tests novel interventions to prevent and manage micronutrient deficiencies in randomised controlled trials and animal models. This research area also focuses on strategies to address micronutrient deficiency through supplementation, fortification or dietary diversity.

Nutrition and haemostasis

The influences of nutrition on levels and functions of blood coagulation and fibrinolytic proteins during health and disease are examined using cutting edge technology.  The group has a specialised infrastructure providing them with unique opportunities for in-depth research of the role of nutrition and other exposures on the haemostatic system.  The activities in this field have led to major new understandings of basic molecular effects of amongst others, alcohol on haemostasis and to the role of hypercoagulability in diseases such as diabetes and coronary artery disease.  The group plays a leading role in an international committee tasked with the standardisation of these assays between laboratories world-wide.

Nutrigenetics

The intricate relationship between nutrients and genetics plays a major role in modulating disease risk. The major focus in this field is to unravel the genetic and epigenetic underpinnings of nutritional-related diseases in the South African population. This discipline focuses on elucidating the different molecular pathways involved in the regulation of various risk factors specific to non-communicable disease development i.e. micronutrient regulation, unfavourable lipid profiles, and haemostasis.

Nutrition leadership

The African Nutrition Leadership Programme (ANLP) has created a pan-African network of over 350 professionals in 35 African countries. It has also led to additional leadership development projects with the Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda and Uganda affecting the lives of more than 60 million people in Kenya and Zambia. Currently CEN is a research partner in the Agriculture for Nutrition and Health project and this sub-programme will investigate the role of leadership capabilities in the process of policy making and implementation.  Within this programme we also focus on the evidence informed decision making process in nutrition and the policy implications thereof in South Africa as part of the EVIDENT collaboration.

Therapeutic nutrition

This area of research aims to increase the amount of research being done in the clinical setting in South Africa and Africa.  Nutritional issues such as macro- and micronutrient malnutrition in hospitalised patients, and nutrition therapy of the acutely ill hospitalised patients are areas that require more research in the African context.  The aim of this group is therefore to do research that informs decisions regarding the medical nutrition therapy of patients with various disease conditions and to improve the therapeutic nutrition research capacity in Africa.  This sub-programme also has a very strong pan-African capacity development focus.