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The case for a National Institute of Nutrition

The case for a National Institute of Nutrition
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The time has come for Congress to explore the merits of creating a federal agency solely dedicated to nutritional science — specifically, the establishment of a National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), under the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Here’s why.

The economic impact of managing diet-related chronic conditions in the United States is estimated at over $1 trillion per year and growing. Yet, the evidence base for making many specific dietary recommendations remains suboptimal and often contradictory. Robust, independent research in nutritional science is an urgent public health priority. 

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The way federal priorities are currently organized, nutritional science is not the primary focus of any federal agency. None of the 27 institutes and centers that comprise the National Institutes of Health (NIH) focus on nutrition. The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) oversight is largely limited to food labeling and safety. Research funding from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is predominantly dedicated to science as applied to farming and food manufacturing, not nutritional science on the effect of food on humans. 

The aggregate sum of research funding set aside for nutritional research across these and all other federal agencies is estimated to be only $1.5 billion annually. To put this into perspective, national spending on candy is about $50 billion per year. 

Given the modest level of available support from public institutions, food scientists rely to a significant degree on research funding from industry sources. On one hand, the industry funding fills an important gap in food science research and has contributed significantly to the body of knowledge. On the other hand, disproportionate reliance on industry sponsorship for research funding poses its own set of risks to public benefit over the long term.

The NIH recently had to shut down a $100 million trial — one that could have enshrined alcohol as part of a healthy diet — because NIH officials running the trial had violated policy by soliciting funding support from industry. Such solicitations of private interests are in no small part a result of the lack of public funding for nutritional research.

The NIN’s mission would be to seek fundamental knowledge about food and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness, disability, and their associated costs. The establishment of the NIN would provide robust, independent, and much needed new evidence on health effects of foods as well as independence in translation of this evidence-based nutritional science into national dietary guidelines.

Improving the nation’s health through better nutrition will pay enormous dividends. The NIN could more than pay for itself over the long term through scientific advances, food and nutrition innovations, and cost savings for the HHS. 

As it stands today, direct and indirect costs of managing diet-related chronic conditions in the United States are estimated at over $1 trillion annually and growing. Private businesses are being crushed by rising healthcare costs. Two-thirds of active duty military personnel are overweight or obese, and obesity is the leading medical reason that otherwise qualified recruits cannot join the military.

Our food system is also a leading cause of environmental impact, for water, land, forests, oceans, and climate. Poor eating also contributes to disparities, especially for children: a vicious cycle of bad health, lost productivity, increased health costs, and poverty. Indeed, given the growing role of diet in human diseases, and the fact that one in four federal dollars is spent on health care, we may not be able to afford not having a National Institute of Nutrition.

Congress launched the National Cancer Institute through the National Cancer Act of 1937 because it recognized that the time had come to seriously address cancer at the national level.

We are at a similar tipping point for nutrition and health.

Dr. Joon Yun is president and managing partner of health care hedge fund Palo Alto Investors. Board certified in radiology, Yun served on the clinical faculty at Stanford from 2000-2006. Yun is a member of the President's Circle of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Yun launched the $1 million Palo Alto Longevity Prize in 2013 to reverse the aging process and recently donated $2 million to launch the National Academy of Medicine Aging and Longevity Grand Challenge.