An Interdisciplinary and Systems View of Nutritional Epidemiology

Dr. Frank Hu, Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

As the third speaker in the College of Health and Human Services Dean’s Seminar Series, Dr. Frank Hu Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Hu presented “Integrated Nutrition Approach to Improving Personal, Population, and Planetary Health.” Hu has played a leading role in informing policies related to red meat consumption and taxation of sugary drinks. His interdisciplinary and systems view of nutritional epidemiology has opened a dialogue both inside and outside of academia about strategies and policy to improve both human and planetary health. 

Hu’s research focuses on integrating population, laboratory, and translational approaches to study chronic diseases as well as translating scientific findings into clinical guidelines and policies that have a major impact on public health.

In his Seminar, Hu discussed the importance of a public health approach to nutrition, stating that our current food systems are not sufficient to feed the world’s booming population, which will grow by 33% from 7.5 billion to more than 10 billion by 2050. While precision nutrition presents a range of opportunities to help better understand their unique blend of factors that shape our individual nutrition response—including genetic makeup, gut microbiome, and metabolic profiles—Hu believes that the costs of collecting and analyzing this data will be difficult to scale even with the proliferation of wearable devices and AI. 

Because changing human behavior- especially as it relates to food consumption- is very difficult, Hu promotes a model for developing healthier food environments, which is ultimately more effective in changing unhealthy behaviors. Taxation, labeling, and altering how food is marketed and where have proven to be effective in helping people make healthier choices about food.

“We are not yet able to say ‘Alexa, what should I eat because there are many different food systems, we all have different metabolic responses, and different eating habits,” says Hu.  Overall, data shows that diets are pretty unhealthy across the world – with some exceptions for countries in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and East Asian regions. Hu also discussed the human and planetary health implications of the many meat options currently available—from conventional red meat to plant-based meat alternatives like Impossible Burgers or Beyond Burgers and the emerging area of lab-grown or cultured meat. “Maybe someday your robots here at Mason will deliver burgers like these,” joked Hu, in reference to the Starship food delivery robots that bring pizzas and coffee to students around campus. That someday is probably sooner than we might think.

Dean’s Seminar Series

This presentation was part of the College of Health and Human Services Dean’s Seminar Series. Learn more about the series, upcoming speakers, and RSVP.