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Accessible version of Nutrition timeline

1918: Discovering the cause of rickets

Sir Edward Mellanby demonstrates that a dietary deficiency causes rickets and that this could be treated with cod liver oil. The study is funded by the MRC.

1929: Nobel Prize for discovering vitamins

Professor Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, a founding MRC member, wins the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of vitamins. He had shown that rats failed to grow if fed a diet of pure proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and water and concluded that foods must contain unidentified substances needed for survival. Before his work, most researchers believed that diet-linked illnesses, such as the scurvy that sailors suffered from during long trips, were caused by a toxic substance in certain foods.

1939: Demonstrating sufficiency of war rations

By walking miles in the Lake District on proposed Second World War diet rations, Dr Elsie Widdowson and Professor Robert McCance demonstrate that they provide sufficient nutrition for healthy functioning. They also conclude that in a rationed diet with limited dairy, calcium fortification of bread would be beneficial. This led to the statutory fortification of bread with calcium, which still continues today.

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1940: The Composition of Foods is published

Dr Elsie Widdowson and Professor Robert McCance publish The Composition of Foods, regarded as the foremost nutrition publication and the basis of most nutritional databases around the world. 2014 saw the publication of its seventh edition.

1965: Low fat diet unnecessary when treating heart attacks

A study shows that in patients with coronary heart disease, a low fat diet results in a 10% reduction in cholesterol but has no effect on the rate of death or reinfarction - a successive heart attack within 28 days of the first. The researchers therefore conclude that a low fat diet is not necessary in the treatment of heart attacks. This changed the thinking of the time, making heart disease research more focussed on effective interventions.

1986: Common chronic diseases result from poor nutrition in the womb

Professor David Barker and his team discovered the relationship between birth weight and the lifetime risk of chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes. Barker was Director of the MRC’s Environmental Epidemiology Unit at Southampton University (1984-2003). Often called the ‘Barker Hypothesis’, this observation was controversial at first but is now widely accepted. Barker’s first paper proposing the link between poor early nutrition and adult chronic disease was published in 1986 in the Lancet. In 1992, Barker and Charles Nicholas Hales described impaired development of the pancreas as a major long-term consequence of poor early nutrition, which increases the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes. Read a summary of this paper, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology ‘Reprints and Reflections’ 2013 series to commemorate the MRC Centenary. Barker's ideas stimulated worldwide research into the complex processes of nutrition and growth during development, linked to adult disease.

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1989: Physical activity, not calcium intake, protects against hip fracture.

Researchers at the MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit follow up a large cohort of elderly people to assess the link between calcium intake, physical activity and risk of hip fracture. They find that whilst reduced calcium intake did not seem to be a risk factor for hip fracture, the risk did increase with decreasing outdoor activity and in those with the weakest grip. The researchers conclude that physical activity and muscle strength may protect against hip fracture by preserving bone mass or reducing the risk and severity of falls.

1989: Demonstrating benefits of oily fish consumption

A trial shows that oily fish consumption reduces death from heart disease by 29% in patients who had already experienced a heart attack. This added to the evidence compiled by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA) who advised people in a 1994 report to ‘eat at least two portions of fish, of which one should be oily, weekly’. The study also showed that reducing fat consumption was not associated with any difference in death rate.

1991: Research leads to recommendation that pregnant women take folic acid

Researchers show that folic acid supplements taken at the time of conception can prevent neural tube defects such as anencephaly and spina bifida. The study is halted so that all participants can receive folic acid supplements. This leads to the government recommendation that both women wishing to conceive and pregnant women take a 400µg folic acid supplement. The UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) also recommends that folic acid is added to flour or bread.

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2003: High-fibre diet reduces colorectal cancer risk

A high-fibre diet reduces colorectal cancer risk, according to the EPIC study involving researchers from the MRC Dunn Human Nutrition Unit. In populations with a low average intake of dietary fibre, an approximate doubling of total fibre intake from foods could reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by 40%.

2006: Importance of vitamin D supplementation in pregnancy

Research at the MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre in Southampton highlights that maternal vitamin D deficiency is common and that it is linked to reduced bone-mineral accrual in the offspring during childhood. The researchers suggest that vitamin D supplementation in pregnancy could reduce osteoporotic fracture risk in their children. This, together with other research at the centre, has reinforced recommendations by the Department of Health, Food Standards Agency and NICE for daily vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy.

2011: Mother's diet during pregnancy influences child's risk of obesity

Scientists discover that a mother’s nutrition during pregnancy can strongly influence her child’s risk of obesity and, as an adult, their risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. This is caused by epigenetic change, which alters the function of her child’s DNA.

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2013: Iodine deficiency in pregnancy affects children’s mental development

Iodine deficiency in pregnancy adversely affects children’s mental development, according to the MRC-funded Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC).

2013: Developing a smartphone app to monitor diet and exercise

Researchers at the University of Leeds develop My Meal Mate, a smartphone app that enables users to monitor their food intake and exercise. A study found that those using the app lost more weight than those monitoring food intake and exercise via an online diary and a paper-based version. This is the first weight loss app to be supported by published peer-reviewed evidence.

2011-2014: Linking dietary factors to type 2 diabetes

MRC Epidemiology Unit research highlights the first large-scale evidence in Europe linking dietary factors to the risk of type 2 diabetes. Key findings include an increased risk with regular high red and processed meat intake and reduced risk with fruit and vegetable intake. The research also shows that certain food subtypes (eg oily fish, fermented dairy products) have inverse associations with the disease, which may be missed if only the total intake of those food groups is considered (total fish intake, total dairy products intake).

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2014: Not all saturated fats are the same

Research led by the MRC Epidemiology Unit and involving researchers from MRC Human Nutrition Research demonstrates that not all saturated fatty acids are the same. It highlights the importance of recognising differences between the health effects of different types and the need for more nuanced public health messages about overall intake.

2016: Tax on sugary drinks

The UK Government publishes draft legislation for a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, set to begin in April 2018. MRC research has contributed to the evidence behind this decision. This includes research in 2013 led by the MRC Epidemiology Unit demonstrated that consuming at least one sugar-sweetened beverage each day increased the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The same year, researchers at MRC Human Nutrition Research demonstrated a link between a high consumption of sugary drinks by teenagers and risk factors for heart disease in later life.

2016: Mediterranean diet could prevent 20,000 UK deaths a year

A study shows that people who consume a diet high in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, fish and olive oil lower their risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and strokes, by up to 16 per cent. The researchers, who followed nearly 24,000 people in the UK for up to 17 years, estimated that 12.5% of cardiovascular deaths could be prevented in everyone switched to the Mediterranean diet. Cardiovascular disease causes around 160,000 deaths in the UK each year and so 20,000 deaths could be avoided by eating a diet high in these foods.

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2017: Why dairy products may lower type 2 diabetes risk

Researchers discover that body mass distribution may be the reason why consumption of some dairy products is associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes or cardiometabolic diseases. The study, of more than 12,000 adults, showed that higher milk and low-fat dairy consumption was observed in participants who had a healthier abdominal fat distribution and a higher body lean mass. These are characteristics associated with a lower risk of metabolic disease, including type 2 diabetes.

2017: You are what your grandmother ate…

A study conducted in rural Gambia shows that parents’ own prenatal environment affects their children’s weight. Mothers who were malnourished in the womb give birth to smaller babies, whereas the same conditions in fathers results in smaller offspring by the time they are two years old. The study shows that it may take several generations to eliminate growth failure and stunting because of these intergenerational influences.

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