As a research scientist in the area of human nutrition, I have observed a sea change in emphasis within my field over the past 10-15 years. There have always been dynamics within the subject: During the first half of the twentieth century, scientists grappled with discovering the essential micronutrients and with characterizing the biological effects of their deficiency. This interest in "too little" was supplanted in the mid-1980s by a preoccupation with too much—too much fat, too much sugar, and too much obesity. Unfortunately, nutritional research that looks at the relationship between dietary components and disease has often been dogged by equivocal, even contradictory research publications, frequently undermining the faith that the public has in nutritional science. The advent in recent times of molecular biological approaches to problem solving has moved nutrition away from its origins into the front line of genomic research. Nutrients and genes conspire to modify disease risk, they interact to promote cellular function, and given the variable exogenous disposition of nutrients, have provided a force for evolutionary selection pressures that have led to the emergence of modern man.
Modern nutritional texts have had to adapt to the bioinformatics revolution. Students at the undergraduate and the postgraduate level have had to rethink their ideas of human nutrition. When I began research in the late 1980s, one would typically measure vitamin X in population A and population B and do a statistical comparison to see whether a real difference existed. The research emphasis then changed in the 1990s to see whether variant genes could modify the level of vitamin X and account for the difference between populations A and B. Today we are interested in how vitamins A to Z influence the genome and thousands of gene products in a multidimensional view of cellular processes that we now refer to as nutrigenomics. This is the dawn of the age of molecular nutrition.
Molecular nutrition is a far more multidisciplinary subject than the nutritional sciences of old. It can address fundamental questions of human health that provide exquisite mechanistic explanations of cause and effect. Human nutritional health is an area that I both teach and research, but molecular nutrition can go further than having an impact on health alone. In some ways, given the importance of food components as environmental factors driving evolutionary processes, molecular nutrition may well help explain our human origins. Many groups around the world are now starting to investigate nutrition in the context of human evolution, and in so doing, they are placing my subject within a sphere of endeavor that may well help to explain the meaning of life itself.
I have written this book to help students and teachers at the university level gain a new perspective on an old subject. I have written it in a way that I hope engages students drawn from a range of relevant disciplines that extend from molecular nutrition, nutritional sciences, and nutrition and dietetics to anthropology.
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