Working life: Nutrition scientist Nita Forouhi
by Guest Author on 6 Feb 2019
Professor Nita Gandhi Forouhi, of the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, studies food and nutrition, and how this affects our health. Here she reveals some dietary home truths, the importance of good, solid evidence and her passion for championing equality in science.
Career in brief
- Medical degree with BSc degree in immunology, Newcastle University
- Junior doctor jobs in Newcastle and Edinburgh
- Four-year Wellcome fellowship in clinical epidemiology, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
- Specialised in public health in London and Cambridge
- From postdoc to programme leader and professor at the MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge; honorary consultant public health physician with Public Health England
Food matters to us all. So many chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, are related to lifestyle and behavioural factors such as our diet. I study the link between diet, food and the risk of serious illnesses, and what to do about their prevention.
I left India at the age of 14, and for as long as I can remember I wanted to be a doctor. I arrived in the UK as a first-generation immigrant and as I came here to study, without my parents, found the schooling and culture novel and exciting. But it also meant hard work – I took on many jobs, including being a cleaner and giving private tuition to younger students. I studied science A Levels, then went to medical school in Newcastle.
As a junior doctor I used to get downhearted seeing patients in diabetes clinics. I felt I could advise patients or give them medication, and their control of diabetes would improve, but many people would still deteriorate. So for me, being a clinician wasn’t enough. I wanted to really try and understand why disease happens, and how to prevent it.
Hear more about Nita’s career inspirations in our MRC talks podcast interview:
That’s when I decided I needed to get back to doing research. During my medical training I did a combined degree in lab-based immunology research which I loved. But it was during my four-year Wellcome Fellowship in clinical epidemiology that my love for looking at populations really took shape. My PhD was very hands on, trying to understand why people get diabetes and heart disease, and why some ethnic groups are affected differently.
It’s difficult to measure what people eat. People won’t stick to diets for years and years on end while you study them in randomised trials. This makes nutritional epidemiology a challenging field. But equally this makes it even more important to do good research, in large sample sizes and diverse populations, and to replicate your findings. If you get similar findings in different settings, you can be so much more confident in them.
We’ve developed methods of assessing diets objectively: we take blood samples and measure the levels of tell-tale molecules called ‘biomarkers’ which tell us about people’s diets. It’s the equivalent of using a Fitbit to measure exercise.
Using blood biomarkers, we’ve found that dairy products can be good for your health. Just as we now know there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterols, our research suggests there are also ‘good’ and ‘bad’ dietary saturated fats. By measuring dietary biomarkers and health in large populations, across eight countries of Europe, we found that people with more ‘good’ saturated fatty acids had a lower risk of developing diabetes over time, whereas other types of ‘bad’ saturated fatty acids increased people’s risk.
Our research has also shown that drinking sugary drinks on a regular basis can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. This may sound obvious, but having a hunch isn’t enough to influence policy. Our research was cited in evidence reviews and policy briefings, ultimately contributing towards the UK government tax on sugary drinks introduced last April. My team won the 2016 Vice-Chancellor’s Award at the University of Cambridge for public impact of research, which was very rewarding for all of us.
It’s really important to do public engagement. We explain our results to the volunteers in our research studies, telling them how their contribution is helping us understand health and disease. I’m often invited by the media to discuss our research and to provide expert comment on other scientists’ nutrition research. We also engage directly with the public at the annual Cambridge Science Festival.
My typical working day is usually very rushed and dynamic. I’m a busy bee who flits around from project meeting, to PhD supervision, to research management meeting. I might be preparing a talk, travelling for an international or national conference, or teaching students. I write scientific papers, write and review research grants, and sit on advisory committees.
Equality, diversity and inclusion are very close to my heart. As the University of Cambridge Clinical School’s equality champion, I have numerous roles including promoting gender and race equality. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, a woman or a man, everyone has their down times and their up times. You need to be resilient as an individual but you also need supportive colleagues and institutional systems that support you. Over my career so many good systems have come into place. For example, the Athena SWAN charter is helping women in STEM subjects.
My advice for my younger self would be believe in yourself. Work hard, surround yourself with people who you can talk to and be good peer mentors. There will often be challenges but keep your eye on the ball and keep working towards your goals, don’t give up.
Everyone feels they’re an expert on nutrition; there are all sorts of books, blogs, TV and radio programmes about food. So it’s all the more important to take it back to evidence, not opinion, and do good, solid research. By finding better methods of assessing diet and doing research in diverse populations globally, I want to be able to give personalised nutrition advice in the future. Research is a powerful tool to influence human health, and I feel privileged to be able to impact the prevention of disease.
As told to Isabel Harding